New ‘violent felony’ ruling from SCOTUS may provide sentence relief


Welch vs. United States: Supreme Court Holds that Johnson vs. United States is Retroactive

A recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling may make it possible for some convicted felons who were later sent to prison for possessing a firearm to obtain relief from their sentences.

The issues surrounding the Court’s new attitude toward firearm-possession rules are complicated. Put simply, United States law prohibits convicted felons from possessing a firearm. The maximum sentence for a felon convicted under this statute is 10 years, but the sentence is enhanced to a minimum of 15 years and a maximum of life imprisonment if the felon had three or more prior convictions for drug or “violent felonies.”

The federal Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) of 1984 defines “violent felony” as “any crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year … that (A) has as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person of another; or (B) is burglary, arson, or extortion, involves use of explosives, or otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.

In June 2015, the Supreme Court ruled in Johnson v. United States that the residual clause of “violent felonies” that increased a sentence in federal cases (the “B” section above, related to burglaries, arson, etc.) was unconstitutionally vague.

Based on the Johnson ruling, a Florida inmate by the name of Gregory Welch sought relief from the courts from his sentence for possessing a firearm. He was unsuccessful at the lower-court level, but the High Court agreed to hear his case in its most recent 2015-16 term.

One question before the Supreme Court was whether Johnson v. United States, which held that the residual clause in the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) of 1984 is unconstitutionally vague — announced a new “substantive” rule of constitutional law that is retroactively applicable in an initial motion to vacate a federal prisoner’s ACCA-enhanced sentence. A second question dealt with whether Welch’s conviction for robbery under Florida state law qualified as a violent felony that supports an ACCA sentence enhancement.

Last month, in Welch v. United States, the Court held that Johnson is retroactive. The net effect of this ruling is that any federal prisoner whose sentence was enhanced by the aforementioned “residual clause” has until June 26 for sentencing relief.

Experts are noting that because of the Welch ruling, the impact on hundreds or even thousands of federal sentences will be large, and the administrative burden of resentencings will be significant.

If you are a felon (or know someone who is) and you are serving a post-conviction federal sentence for possessing a firearm under ACCA-enhanced guidelines, it would be wise to consult with an experienced criminal defense attorney immediately to determine possible eligibility. The June 26 deadline is less than two months away at the time of this writing.



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