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Part of Federal Repeat Offender Law Struck Down by Supreme Court

While most of the attention on the U.S. Supreme Court’s recently concluded term has been about its decisions involving the Affordable Care Act and marriage equality, there was a flurry of other rulings issued as well. One such case involved a federal law that provides for enhanced sentencing for repeat offenders.

As is the case in many states, Texas law includes provisions that increase the length of sentences for individuals convicted of multiple felonies. Section 12.42 of the Texas Penal Code – the state’s “three strikes” law – sets forth the increased punishments that defendants face upon their third conviction, which vary depending on the nature and seriousness of the previous convictions.

The federal government has similar provisions for certain violations of federal law, and in a recent decision, the Supreme Court of the United States struck down a portion of a federal repeat offender law for being unconstitutionally vague.

The federal Armed Career Criminals Act increases the sentence for an illegal gun conviction if the defendant has at least three prior convictions for violent felonies. At issue in Johnson v. United States was what exactly constituted a “violent felony” that would subject a defendant to the enhanced penalties. While the law defines a violent felony to include several specific offenses, it also includes any felony that “involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.”

Writing for the 6-3 majority, Justice Antonin Scalia held that this “residual clause” of the law was too vague to be constitutional. He wrote that the clause “fails to give ordinary people fair notice of the conduct it punishes, [and is] so standardless that it invites arbitrary enforcement.” He concluded that it, therefore, violates traditional due process fairness concerns and should be invalidated, though the remainder of the law stands.

The Johnson decision should not have any impact on Texas’ “three strikes” law, but it is a reminder that criminal laws to need to be written with sufficient clarity such that individuals can be put on notice as to what constitutes an offense and so that criminal defendants can mount an effective defense.

Mark Diaz – Experienced Houston/Galveston Criminal Defense Lawyer

When you have been charged with a crime, you need an experienced lawyer who focuses exclusively on defending criminal cases and who will aggressively protect your rights. Throughout my career, I have successfully handled every type of criminal defense case there is. More importantly, criminal defense is the only thing I do. I have witnessed firsthand how a criminal charge can negatively impact every area of a person’s life. As a lawyer, I consider it a privilege to help people during this stressful time in their lives. Call me today at (409) 515-6170 for a free consultation to discuss your case.

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