06.27.2019

Federal Firearm Offense

Supreme Court Rules on Federal Firearm Offense

924(c) Is In Part Unconstitutionally Vague

In United States v. Davis, No. 18-431 (June 24, 2019), the Supreme Court held that the residual definition of a crime of violence under the federal firearm offense is unconstitutionally vague.  § 924(c) charges are brought on the accusation of using or carrying a firearm or possession in furtherance of a drug trafficking offense or a crime of violence. The root of what constitutes a crime of violence is a concept too broad to provide fair notice that one’s conduct will subject them to this mandatory minimum sentence that runs consecutive to the sentence for the underlying offense. That is why this vagueness violates due process rights protected by the Fifth Amendment.

Conspiracy Cases Cannot Be Used For 924(c)

This holding (written by Justice Gorsuch in a 5 to 4 opinion) paves the way for people accused in federal court of crimes like conspiracy to commit a federal robbery (Hobbs Act robbery) to challenge whether they can also receive an additional mandatory minimum sentence for a 924(c) offense. However, the force clause that also defines a crime of violence  under 924(c) remains in effect. So Davis does not resolve whether a non-conspiracy alleged offense, like the standalone offense of robbery, if committed with a firearm, will subject the accused to an enhanced sentence under 924(c) for the firearm.

Court Rejected Federal Prosecutors’ Attempt to Get Categorical Approach Thrown Out

The Court rejected the federal prosecutors’ arguments that the doctrine of constitutional avoidance (avoiding constitutional questions by interpreting a statute in a way that gets around the constitutional issues) means that the categorical approach to determining what is a crime of violence should not be used. Under the categorical approach (the classic test for what constitutes a crime of violence in other areas of federal law), the judge only looks to the specific definition or elements of the criminal offense in question. The judge does not look further to the facts of what happened that gave rise to that offense being charged. So under the definition of a conspiracy to commit an offense (or other uncompleted offenses like attempt), purposeful, violent physical force was not necessarily used. Therefore, it is not a crime of violence under the categorical approach. This is especially true when the residual definition of what constitutes a crime of violence is now considered to be too open ended and broad to be a constitutional law.

At bottom, Davis is an important case for defending federal firearms cases.

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