Supreme Court rules 'violent felony' requires use of physical force

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website; JURIST news archive] on Tuesday ruled [opinion, PDF] 7-2 in Johnson v. United States [Cornell LII backgrounder; JURIST report] that a "violent felony" requires the use of physical force. The court found that the Florida battery offense does not meet the physical force requirement of the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) [19 USC § 924 text] to be considered a violent felony for sentencing enhancement purposes. The US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit held [opinion, PDF] that such a battery does constitute a violent felony. In reversing the opinion below, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote:

Section 924(e)(2)(B)(i) does not define "physical force," and we therefore give the phrase its ordinary meaning. The adjective "physical" is clear in meaning but not of much help to our inquiry. ... It is the noun that poses the difficulty; "force" has a number of meanings. ... In more general usage it means "[s]trength or energy; active power; vigor; often an unusual degree of strength or energy," "[p]ower to affect strongly in physical relations," or "[p]ower, violence, compulsion, or constraint exerted upon a person.” Black's Law Dictionary ... defines "force" as "[p]ower, violence, or pressure directed against a person or thing." And it defines "physical force" as "[f]orce consisting in a physical act, esp. a violent act directed against a robbery victim." All of these definitions suggest a degree of power that would not be satisfied by the merest touching.
Justice Samuel Alito filed a dissenting opinion, joined by Justice Clarence Thomas, asserting that, "the crime of battery, as traditionally defined, falls squarely within the plain language of ACCA."

The defendant, Curtis Johnson, pleaded guilty to knowingly possessing ammunition after having been convicted of a felony, and the government sought an enhanced penalty under the ACCA, which provides longer sentences for defendants who have previously been convicted of three violent felonies. Johnson disputed that his conviction for simple battery should be considered a violent felony.


 

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