U.S. Supreme Court Rejects Texas Defendants’ Sentence Enhancements as “Unconstitutionally Vague”
July 8th, 2019 by Tad Nelson in Criminal Defense
A common problem faced by criminal defendants is the tendency of prosecutors to charge multiple offenses arising from the same acts. For instance, there are many criminal statutes that allow for “enhanced” penalties if prosecutors can prove certain elements, such as whether the defendant was in possession of a firearm at the time of the alleged offense.
What Exactly Is a “Crime of Violence”?
But not all of these sentencing enhancements pass constitutional muster. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court recently struck down the use of a firearm-related sentencing enhancement against two defendants from right here in Texas. A majority of the Court determined the law authorizing the enhancements was “unconstitutionally vague.”
The two defendants in this case, United States v. Davis, committed a series of gas station robberies. Prosecutors charged the two men with violating the Hobbs Act, a federal statute that makes it a crime to commit robbery in order to obstruct, delay, or affect interstate commerce. The jury found both defendants guilty, for which they received prison sentences of 70 and 100 years, respectively.
These convictions and sentences were not what the Supreme Court was asked to review. Rather, the justices examined additional charges prosecutors brought against the defendants under a separate federal statute, 18 U.S.C. §924(c). This statute subjects a defendant to enhanced penalties–i.e., additional jail time–if the government can prove the defendant was carrying a firearm “during and in relation to any crime of violence.”
Because the jury agreed with the prosecution that the two defendants here brandished weapons while committing their robberies, they received additional sentences of 35 years each under §9249(c).
But the Supreme Court threw out this part of the sentencing, because as noted above, the justices sided with the defense’s view that §924(c) was itself unconstitutional. Writing for the Court, Justice Neil Gorsuch explained the phrase “crime of violence” was the problem, as it was impossible to determine what specific criminal offenses that meant.
The statute itself says it refers to felonies that “by their nature, involve a substantial risk that physical that physical force against the person or property of another may be used in the course of committing the offense.” But this is still too vague, Gorsuch said, to put any defendant–including the two in this case–on notice as to “which offenses qualify as crimes of violence.”
Speak with a Houston Criminal Defense Lawyer Today
Criminal prosecutions are rarely simple. Defendants often face multiple charges, which they find difficult to understand even when they are not “unconstitutionally vague.” This is why it is critical to work with an experienced Houston criminal defense attorney whenever you are charged with a state or federal offense.