Why Supreme Court sided with white supremacist

The high court ruled in favor of Samuel Johnson, a Minnesota white supremacist, who had been sentenced to 15 years in prison under the federal Armed Career Criminal Act.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP/File
The Supreme Court building in Washington, June 30, 2014.

The US Supreme Court on Friday voted 6 to 3 to throw out part of a federal criminal sentencing law for being too broad.

The federal Armed Career Criminal Act imposes a minimum 15-year sentence when a defendant is convicted of possessing a firearm and has already been convicted of at least three qualifying crimes, including violent felonies, burglary, and arson.

The court ruled in favor of Samuel Johnson, a Minnesota white supremacist, who was given 15 years in prison for illegally possessing firearms.

The judge in Johnson's case told him if owning a sawed-off shotgun didn’t count as a violent felony, Mr. Johnson would have gotten 10 years or less. 

Judge Richard Kyle doled out the additional sentence to Johnson in 2012 when he pleaded guilty to one count of being a felon in possession of a firearm. He had previously been convicted of robbery on two occasions and possessing a short-barreled shotgun.

Johnson’s attorneys found a particular issue with the additional provision that the law also applies to previous convictions that concern “conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.”

This meant, the risk of serious injury – which includes possessing firearms – took precedence, even if the crime didn’t actually involve violence – use of the firearm.

Johnson’s lawyers argued mere possession of the gun should not count as a violent felony. They said the initial ruling violated the US Constitution’s Fifth Amendment, which mandates due process under law. The majority of the justices ultimately agreed.

With the reformed law, Johnson will now be resentenced and face a maximum sentence of 10 years.

The ruling could also affect other inmates in similar situations to Johnson. According to Vox, there are about 7,000 prisoners serving time under this act – most of whom, however, would be unaffected by the specific change in the law.

This report includes material from Reuters.

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