Law School Case Brief
United States v. Davis - 139 S. Ct. 2319 (2019)
In our constitutional order, a vague law is no law at all. Only the people’s elected representatives in Congress have the power to write new federal criminal laws. And when Congress exercises that power, it has to write statutes that give ordinary people fair warning about what the law demands of them. Vague laws transgress both of those constitutional requirements. They hand off the legislature’s responsibility for defining criminal behavior to unelected prosecutors and judges, and they leave people with no sure way to know what consequences will attach to their conduct. When Congress passes a vague law, the role of courts under the Constitution is not to fashion a new, clearer law to take its place, but to treat the law as a nullity and invite Congress to try again.
Defendants Maurice Davis and Andre Glover were charged with multiple counts of Hobbs Act robbery and one count of conspiracy to commit Hobbs Act robbery. They were also charged under 18 U.S.C.S. § 924(c), which authorized heightened criminal penalties for using, carrying, or possessing a firearm in connection with any federal “crime of violence or drug trafficking crime.” The residual clause defined a “crime of violence” as 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.” A jury in federal district court convicted them for brandishing a firearm in connection with their crimes. Defendants appealed, arguing that § 924(c)’s residual clause was unconstitutionally vague. Ultimately, the appellate court held that defendants' convictions for robbery as the predicate crime of violence could be sustained under the elements clause, but that the other count, which charged conspiracy as a predicate crime of violence, could not be upheld because it depended on the residual clause.
Was the residual clause in 18 U.S.C.S. § 924(c) unconstitutionally vague?
The Supreme Court of the United States held that the residual clause was unconstitutionally vague because, since even if it was possible to read the statute to impose additional punishment, it was impossible to say that Congress intended that result or that the law gave defendants fair warning that the mandatory penalties of § 924(c) would apply to their conduct. The case was remanded for further proceedings. The Court however did note that 18 U.S.C.S. § 924(c)(3)(B) commanded the categorical approach because legislatures knew how to write risk-based statutes that required a case-specific analysis, and § 924(c)(3)(B) was not a statute like that. The case-specific reading would cause the penalties to apply to conduct they had not previously been understood to reach: categorically nonviolent felonies committed in violent ways.
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