The federal Armed Career Criminal Act’s residual clause, which defines a “violent felony” as one which “involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another,” is unconstitutionally vague, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled June 26 in Johnson v. United States.

Overruling recent cases to the contrary, the Court held the residual clause violates due process because it fails to give fair notice of prohibited conduct, and invites arbitrary enforcement.


ACCA enhances the punishment for being a felon-in-possession of a firearm if a defendant has three or more earlier convictions for a “violent felony” or “serious drug offense.”

Sec. 924(e)(2)(B)(ii) of ACCA defines “violent felony” as “burglary, arson, extortion, involves use of explosives, or otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.”   The latter language is known as the residual clause.

Samuel Johnson pleaded guilty to being a felon-in-possession of a firearm.  The Government sought an enhanced sentence on grounds that his previous offenses – including unlawful possession of a short-barreled shotgun – qualified as a “violent felonies” under the residual clause.

The district court and Eighth Circuit held that possession of a short-barreled shotgun was a “violent felony” under the clause.


The Supreme Court, in a 6-3 opinion, reversed, and overruled its recent decisions upholding the residual clause.

The majority began by noting that since 2007, the Court had made four different attempts to define and apply the residual clause.  The Court had held the clause covered Florida’s offense of attempted burglary (James v. United States) and Indiana’s offense of vehicular flight from an officer (Sykes v. United States), but did not cover New Mexico’s offense of driving under the influence (Begay v. United States) or Illinois’ offense of failure to report to a penal institution (Chambers v. United States).

In James and Sykes, the Court had rejected suggestions by dissenting justices that the residual clause was unconstitutionally vague.

But in Johnson, the Court changed course.  “We are convinced that the indeterminacy of the wide-ranging inquiry required by the residual clause both denies fair notice to defendants and invites arbitrary enforcement by judges,” the Court held. 

The clause “leaves grave uncertainty about how to estimate the risk posed by a crime” and “uncertainty about how much risk it takes for a crime to qualify,” the Court said.

The clause requires judges to speculate how the “idealized ordinary case” of the crime subsequently plays out, the Court said.

“[T]his Court’s repeated attempts and repeated failures to craft a principled and objective standard out of the residual clause confirms its hopeless indeterminacy,” the Court majority found. 

“Nine years’ experience trying to derive meaning from the residual clause convinces us that we have embarked upon a failed enterprise,” the Court concluded.  “Invoking so shapeless a provision to condemn someone to prison for 15 years to life does not comport with the Constitution’s guarantee of due process.”

The Court expressly overruled James and Sykes.

Although the majority struck down the residual clause, the Court closed by stating that “[t]oday’s decision does not call into question application of the Act to the four enumerated offenses, or the remainder of the Act’s definition of a violent felony.”