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Florida Inmate’s Supreme Court Case Could Result in Hundreds Freed

In June, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a portion of the Armed Career Criminals Act, a federal law that enhances the sentence for an illegal gun conviction if the defendant has at least three prior convictions for violent felonies.  Thereafter, Florida prison inmate Gregory Welch, who had been sentenced under the Act before it was ruled unconstitutional, requested review of his sentence.  In April 2016, in Welch’s case, the Supreme Court ruled that its decision regarding the Act’s unconstitutionality is retroactive, and should apply to Welch and others like him sentenced under the previous version of the law.

The Armed Career Criminals Act

Federal law prohibits a convicted felon from possessing a firearm.  Violating this law is punishable by a ten-year prison sentence.  But under the Armed Career Criminals Act (ACCA), a person who possesses a firearm after three previous convictions for a serious drug offense or violent felony, as defined by the Act, can be punished by a minimum sentence of 15 years and a maximum sentence of life in prison.  (See Welch v. United States.)  The ACCA defines a “violent felony” as any crime punishable by a prison term of more than one year that:

  1. Has as an element of the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person of another; or
  2. Is burglary, arson, or extortion, involves use of explosives, or otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another. (See S. Code §924(e)(2)(b)).

In the 2015 case, Johnson v. United States, the Court ruled that the portion of the act defining a violent felony to include “conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury” (known as the “residual clause”) was unconstitutionally vague.  The Court concluded that the residual clause did not give enough specific notice about the kind of conduct that was forbidden, and that therefore it could not be used to impose a lengthier sentence.

Welch v. United States

In 2010, Gregory Welch pleaded guilty in Florida to one count of being a felon illegally in possession of a firearm.  Johnson, who already had three prior convictions, conditioned his guilty plea on the opportunity to challenge one of those convictions as not being a violent felony sufficient to support enhancing his sentence.  Welch argued that his conviction for “strong-arm robbery” under Florida law, in which the victim claimed that Welch punched him in the mouth and grabbed a gold bracelet from his wrist, was not a “violent felony” under the ACCA.  The lower court ruled that it was, because it satisfied both the requirement that it have as an element the use of force against another, and the residual clause.  After the Supreme Court in Johnson struck down the residual clause, Welch sought to challenge his sentence on that basis.

The Supreme Court ruled that Johnson is retroactive, meaning that individuals whose sentences were enhanced under the residual clause of the ACCA can challenge those sentences.  According to the ABA Journal, there may be hundreds of current inmates entitled to have their sentences reduced as a result of the Welch ruling.  Ironically, Welch may not be one of them.  Given the nature of Welch’s prior conviction, the Supreme Court noted that even after review a lower court could conclude that his crime satisfies the ACCA’s more specific definition of “violent felony” that still stands.

Consult an Orlando Criminal Defense Lawyer

Federal offenses can be very serious crimes, carrying the potential for lengthy prison sentences and high fines.  The skilled Orlando and Miami criminal defense lawyers of The Baez Law Firm have years of experience defending individuals charged with crimes in the federal courts.  If you are facing potential federal charges, contact us for a consultation without delay.

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