March 02, 2010

Supreme Court Decides Johnson v. United States

On March 2, the Supreme Court decided Johnson v. United States, No. 08-6925, holding that the Armed Career Criminal Act, 18 U.S.C. § 924(e) (ACCA), which authorizes an enhanced sentence if the defendant has three previous convictions for "a violent felony," and which defines that term, inter alia, as an offense having an element "of physical force against the person of another," is not satisfied by a state conviction for battery that can be committed merely by "actually and intentionally touching" someone. Rather, the previous convictions must be for offenses involving "violent" force capable of causing physical pain or injury.

Johnson pleaded guilty to possession of ammunition by a convicted felon. The government sought an enhanced sentence under the ACCA because Johnson had three previous felony convictions, including a Florida conviction for "simple battery." Although this offense ordinarily is a first-degree misdemeanor, in Johnson's case it was a felony under Florida law because he had previously been convicted of another battery. But state law defined a battery as occurring when a person either "actually and intentionally touches or strikes another against [his] will" or "intentionally causes bodily harm" to another, and the record of Johnson's previous conviction did not establish that his offense had involved either "striking" or "intentionally causing bodily harm." The district court nevertheless concluded that even "actually and intentionally touch[ing]" another would constitute "physical force" under the ACCA, and it enhanced Johnson's sentence. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed.

The Supreme Court reversed. It held that it was bound by Florida decisions holding that "simple battery" may be proved by evidence of any intentional physical contact, "no matter how slight," and concluded that an offense as so defined is not a "violent felony" for purposes of the ACCA. In the context of a statute defining a "violent felony" as one having an element of the use of "physical force," the level of force required must be "violent force—that is, force capable of causing physical pain or injury to another person." It noted that, if a previous conviction is for an offense that, like simple battery under Florida law, may or may not involve such a level of force, the trial record may be consulted to determine whether or not such force was actually employed in the particular case; if so, the ACCA's definition of "violent felony" would be met and the enhanced-sentence provision would apply.

Justice Scalia delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Stevens, Kennedy, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor joined. Justice Alito filed a dissenting opinion in which Justice Thomas joined.

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