University of Southern California

How Vague is too Vague?: Resurrecting the Void-for-Vagueness Doctrine in the Context of the Armed Career Criminal Act


Note by Ava Miller
From Volume 89, Number 5 (July, 2016)

In Georgia, Shawntrail Lee was convicted of possessing a firearm as a felon, —a crime that warranted a sentence of roughly three to four years in prison under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. However, Lee’s prescribed sentencing range increased to a minimum of fifteen years under the Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”) because his criminal history included three other crimes that the district court classified as “violent felon[ies].” Lee appealed his sentence, arguing that his predicate conviction of conspiracy to commit armed robbery did not constitute a “violent felony,” and the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, vacating his sentence.

Conversely, in North Carolina, Demontrell White was convicted of possessing a firearm as a felon and was sentenced to fifteen years in prison after the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals determined that his prior conviction of conspiracy to commit robbery with a dangerous weapon was a “violent felony” under the ACCA.

Although both defendants committed the same crime and had similar criminal histories, White was subjected to a prison sentence that was potentially four times higher than Lee’s because of the ambiguity of the term “violent felony” under the ACCA and the way different courts have classified conspiracy crimes using that term.

The ACCA imposes a sentencing enhancement for felons convicted of possessing a firearm in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(g) when their criminal histories include at least three prior violent felonies or serious drug crimes. For this purpose, the ACCA defines “violent felony” as any crime that is punishable by at least one year in prison and that “(i) has as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person of another; or (ii) is burglary, arson, extortion, involves use of explosives, or otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.”


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