The campaign against mandatory minimum prison terms got a boost today when the Supreme Court struck down what justices termed a vague provision of a 1984 federal law that sets a minimum 15-year term for felons convicted of a third “violent felony or serious drug offense.” The law has been termed a federal version of “three strikes” laws that impose long penalties for repeat offenders. The case involved Samuel Johnson of Minnesota, a white supremacist with a long criminal record. Because that record included a conviction for possessing a sawed-off shotgun, it triggered the 15-year minimum sentence.
The law includes what the Wall Street Journal called “a catchall provision that has bedeviled the courts: any crime that ‘presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.’ ” Lower courts have split over what crimes fall into that category, and the Supreme Court itself has heard five cases since 2007 involving the definition. Writing for the court’s majority, Justice Antonin Scalia said that “Nine years' experience trying to derive meaning from the [law] convinces us that we have embarked upon a failed enterprise.” Dissenter Samuel Alito argued that, “Johnson's offense qualified as a violent felony.”