Supreme Court: Definition of “crime of violence” unconstitutionally vague

By Larry . . . NARSOL has some good news today from the United States Supreme Court in the case of Sessions v. Dimaya. The case involved James Dimaya, a lawful, permanent resident of the United States whose deportation was sought because of two convictions for first-degree burglary in the state of California. After his second offense, the government sought to deport him because immigration law defines him as an “aggravated felon.” An Immigration Judge and the Board of Immigration Appeals held that California’s first-degree burglary is a “crime of violence” as defined in the Immigration and Nationality Act. The Supreme Court affirmed the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision that the definition of “crime of violence” is unconstitutionally vague.

The “void-for-vagueness doctrine” guarantees that ordinary people have fair no­tice of the conduct a statute proscribes. See Papachristou v. Jacksonville, 405 U. S. 156, 162 (1972). And the doctrine guards against arbitrary or discriminatory law enforce­ment by insisting that a statute provide standards to govern the actions of police officers, prosecutors, juries, and judges. See Kolender v. Lawson, 461 U. S. 352, 357– 358 (1983). This is the Supreme Court’s second opinion on this issue. The Court previously held that the Armed Career Criminal Act’s (ACCA) language defining a “violent felony” as any felony that “otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another” unconstitutional under the void for vagueness doctrine and said that it violates the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause. See Johnson v. United States, 576 U.S. __, 135 S.Ct. 2551, 192 L.Ed.2d 569 (2015).

This is good news for our stakeholders because lawmakers are so fond of labeling sexual offenses violent when there is no violence. We are optimistic that this decision will provide the framework and support future challenges to these whimsical definitions of crimes of violence.

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