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October 4, 2018
En banc Eleventh Circuit finds way to uphold key clause of § 924(c) mandatory-minimum statute against vagueness challenge
If you cannot get enough of debates over federal statutory interpretation and modern "crime-of-violence" vagueness jurisprudence, the Eleventh Circuit today has delivered for you over 150 pages of excitement in the form of an en banc ruling in Ovalles v. US, No. 17-10172 (11th Cir. Oct. 4, 2018) (available here). Here is part of the start of the majority opinion:
The question before us is whether one of the key provisions of an important federal criminal statute, 18 U.S.C. § 924(c), is unconstitutionally vague. As relevant to our purposes, § 924(c) makes it a federal offense — punishable by a term of imprisonment ranging from five years to life — for any person to use, carry, or possess a firearm in connection with a “crime of violence.” 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1)(A). The provision challenged here — § 924(c)(3)’s “residual clause” — defines the term “crime of violence” to mean a felony “that by its nature, involves a substantial risk that physical force against the person or property of another may be used in the course of committing the offense.” Id. § 924(c)(3)(B).
This case is in some respects a successor to Johnson v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 2551 (2015), and Sessions v. Dimaya, 138 S. Ct. 1204 (2018), in which the Supreme Court invalidated similarly-worded residual clauses on vagueness grounds. In the wake of those decisions, all here seem to agree that if § 924(c)(3)’s residual clause is interpreted to require determination of the crime-of-violence issue using what (in court-speak) has come be called the “categorical approach,” the clause is doomed.... In both Johnson and Dimaya, the Court concluded that application of a standard that requires a reviewing court “to ‘imagine’ an ‘idealized ordinary case of the crime’” rendered the challenged clauses impermissibly vague. Dimaya, 138 S. Ct. at 1214 (quoting Johnson, 135 S. Ct. at 2557–58).
On the flip side, Johnson and Dimaya also make clear — and it is common ground here — that if § 924(c)(3)’s residual clause is instead interpreted to incorporate what we’ll call a “conduct-based approach” to the crime-of-violence determination, then the provision is not unconstitutionally vague. As its name suggests, the conduct-based approach, in stark contrast to the categorical, focuses not on formal legal definitions and hypothetical “ordinary case[s],” but rather on the real-world facts of the defendant’s offense — i.e., how the defendant actually went about committing the crime in question....
The obvious (and decisive) question, then: Which is it here — categorical or conduct-based? Because we find ourselves at this fork in the interpretive road — the categorical approach imperiling § 924(c)(3)’s residual clause, a conduct-based reading saving it—we invoke the canon of “constitutional doubt.” Pursuant to that “elementary rule,” the Supreme Court has long held, “every reasonable construction must be resorted to in order to save a statute from unconstitutionality.” Hooper v. California, 155 U.S. 648, 657 (1895)....
Joining the Second Circuit, which recently came to the same conclusion, see United States v. Barrett, __ F.3d ___, 2018 WL 4288566 (2d Cir. Sept. 10, 2018), we find that § 924(c)(3)(B) can be read to embody the conduct-based approach — and therefore, under the constitutional-doubt canon, that it must be. Accordingly, we hold that § 924(c)(3)(B) prescribes a conduct-based approach, pursuant to which the crime-of-violence determination should be made by reference to the actual facts and circumstances underlying a defendant’s offense.
The rest of the majority opinion runs less than 50 pages, followed by more than 100 pages of concurrences and dissents that cannot be readily summarized. But Judge William Pryor's concurrence, which garners a number of addition votes, gets off to this start which I really appreciate and applaud:
How did we ever reach the point where this Court, sitting en banc, must debate whether a carjacking in which an assailant struck a 13-year-old girl in the mouth with a baseball bat and a cohort fired an AK-47 at her family is a crime of violence? It’s nuts. And Congress needs to act to end this ongoing judicial charade.
I join the majority opinion in full, but I write separately to explain why our resolution of this appeal forecasts how Congress should address the vexing issue of how to punish violent recidivists under laws like the Armed Career Criminal Act: by restoring the traditional role of the jury. The caselaw about how to punish recidivists has confounded the federal courts for decades and has made the resolution of this appeal tricky, but our decision also suggests a way out of the mess. Although our decision involves a contemporaneous crime and not a prior conviction, our conclusion that a jury may make findings about a defendant’s violent conduct applies with equal force to recidivist statutes. Indeed, the modern abandonment of the jury’s traditional role of making findings about prior convictions has created more problems than it has solved.
October 4, 2018 at 08:58 PM | Permalink
I predict now that the U.S. Supreme Court will reverse this En Banc decision of the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.
Posted by: Jim Gormley | Oct 4, 2018 10:21:24 PM
I predict SCOTUS will uphold this opinion.
Posted by: atomicfrog | Oct 5, 2018 8:09:01 AM
I predict that either way those people who believe that the courts are out of control and cannot even make any sense of their own jurisprudence will have another arrow in their quiver.
Posted by: Daniel | Oct 5, 2018 1:31:02 PM
Hitting a 13 yr old gorl in the mouth with a baseball bat and firing an AK-47.
Hmm lets see now. Naw cant be any violence with thise actions at all.
This made it to this level....Good gravy, talk about a bunch of candy @sses...
A 1st grader could get this one right.
Posted by: MidWestGuy | Oct 5, 2018 2:57:56 PM
I wouldn't bet against whatever side Judge Bill Pryor took -- which appears to be the Government's side.
Posted by: Da Man | Oct 6, 2018 1:24:09 PM