Justia Summary

Defendants were convicted of Hobbs Act robbery and conspiracy to commit Hobbs Act robbery and under 18 U.S.C. 924(c), which authorizes heightened penalties for using, carrying, or possessing a firearm in connection with any federal “crime of violence or drug trafficking crime.” “Crime of violence” is defined in an elements clause and a residual clause, 924(c)(3)(B). The residual clause defines "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.” The Fifth Circuit declared the residual clause unconstitutional but held that the 924 (c) convictions having robbery as the predicate crime of violence could be sustained under the elements clause; the count that charged conspiracy as a predicate crime of violence could not be upheld because it depended on the residual clause.

The Supreme Court agreed that section 924(c)(3)(B) is unconstitutionally vague, citing its decisions addressing the residual clauses of the Armed Career Criminal Act and of 18 U.S.C. 16. Each required judges to use a “categorical approach” to determine whether an offense qualified as a violent felony or crime of violence, disregarding how the defendant actually committed the offense and imagining the degree of risk in an “ordinary case.” Section 924(c)(3)(B) required the same categorical approach. The Court declined to abandon that approach and hold that the statute requires a case-specific approach that would look at the defendant’s actual conduct and declined to adopt any “fairly possible” reading to uphold the statute. To expand the reach of a criminal statute to save it would “risk offending the very same due process and separation of powers principles on which the vagueness doctrine” rests and would be inconsistent the rule of lenity. Ambiguities about a criminal statute should be resolved in the defendant’s favor.