Oral argument: Oct. 6, 2009
Appealed from: United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit (May 30, 2008)
Curtis Darnell Johnson was convicted of possession of ammunition by a convicted felon. Because he had been previously convicted of three felonies, one of which was a battery involving possible touching of another person, the prosecution sought to sentence him under the Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”). The ACCA is a federal law that imposes a minimum sentence of fifteen years in prison on criminals who have at least three violent felony convictions. Johnson appealed his sentence, claiming that a battery potentially caused by touching another person did not meet the physical force requirement of the ACCA to be considered a violent felony. The Supreme Court must now decide whether a battery conviction that may have arisen from one person simply touching another meets the physical force requirement of the ACCA. The Supreme Court’s decision in this case will influence not only the ACCA but other federal laws, especially domestic violence statutes that use the physical force requirement. It may also affect the importance of the rule of lenity.
- Whether, when a state's highest court holds that a given offense of that state does not have as an element the use or threatened use of physical force, that holding is binding on federal courts in determining whether that same offense qualifies as a ''violent felony" under the federal Armed Career Criminal Act, which defines ''violent felony" as, inter alia, any crime that "has as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person of another."
- Whether this court should resolve a circuit split on whether a prior state conviction for simple battery is in all cases a "violent felony" - a prior offense that has as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person of another. Further, whether this court should resolve a circuit split on whether the physical force required is a de minimis touching in the sense of "Newtonian mechanics" or whether the physical force required must be in some way violent in nature - that is the sort of force that is intended to cause bodily injury, or at a minimum likely to do so.
- Whether the district court lacked the authority to sentence Mr. Johnson as an Armed Career Criminal, given that Mr. Johnson did not admit the predicate offenses for such a classification when he pled guilty.
Does a felony battery that can be committed by either striking or touching another person meet the physical force requirement of the Armed Career Criminal Act so that the felony is, under the Act, violent, resulting in a much longer prison sentence for the offender?
Curtis Darnell Johnson (“Johnson”) has been previously convicted in Florida for the felonies of aggravated battery, burglary of a dwelling, and battery. Normally, a battery is considered to be a misdemeanor, but under Florida law it is treated as a felony when the offender has been convicted of at least one other battery.
In 2006, Johnson had an argument with his girlfriend that escalated into some kind of physical altercation during which Johnson got a rifle and loaded it. In court, Johnson pled guilty to possession of ammunition by a convicted felon, a federal crime. During sentencing, the United States wanted the court to sentence Johnson under the harsher penalties of the Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”). To be convicted under the ACCA, a person must have already committed three violent felonies, which are felonies that have “as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person of another.” A person convicted under the ACCA receives a minimum fifteen-year prison sentence. The United States District Court for the Middle District of Florida determined that Johnson’s previous three convictions, including the conviction for battery, were convictions for violent felonies, and Johnson was sentenced under the ACCA.
After sentencing, Johnson appealed to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, claiming that his 2002 battery conviction was not a violent felony within the meaning of the ACCA. In Florida, a battery takes place when a person “[a]ctually and intentionally touches or strikes another person against the will of the other; or [i]ntentionally causes bodily harm to another person.” Johnson argues that he may have committed the battery by only touching another person, and that this does not meet the physical force requirement of the ACCA for a violent felony.
The Eleventh Circuit, however, held that a Florida conviction for battery satisfies the ACCA’s physical force requirement and that Johnson’s conviction should be upheld. Johnson maintains that a Florida conviction for felony battery, which can be committed by a mere tap on the shoulder, does not clearly meet the physical force requirement of the ACCA. He also invokes the rule of lenity, claiming that if any doubt remains as to what “physical force” means, the Supreme Court must resolve the issue in his favor. On February 23, 2009, the Supreme Court granted certiorari.
This case will decide whether a simple touch or other form of minimal contact will qualify as physical force under the Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”). The Supreme Court (“Court”) will decide whether a felony battery that does not necessarily involve the use of physical force can be considered a violent felony for purposes of sentencing an offender as a career criminal. The Court will resolve a split between the First, Eighth, and Eleventh Circuits, on the one hand, and the Seventh, Ninth, and Tenth Circuits, on the other hand. The Court may also clarify when and how courts should apply the rule of lenity.
Johnson contends (1) that, for purposes of defining violent felony, physical force requires more than mere nonconsensual touching, (2) that Congress wanted to limit convictions under ACCA to the worst offenders, and (3) that without proof of more than mere nonconsensual touching, he is ineligible for sentencing under the ACCA. Conversely, the United States argues that a battery in Florida contains, as an element, the use of physical force against others—either by touching or striking—and that a felony battery, therefore, always satisfies the physical force requirement of the ACCA.
The First, Eighth, and Eleventh Circuits hold that any minimal touch is an exercise of physical force against another person. If the Supreme Court agrees with this view, many day-to-day contacts, such as tapping a person on the shoulder without consent, would potentially be batteries. If such batteries were to qualify as “forcible felon[ies],” the sentences would be disproportionately long. The Seventh Circuit warns that the distinction between violent and nonviolent crimes would disappear if the legal meaning of “force” were no different from its physical and scientific meanings.
The Seventh, Ninth, and Tenth Circuits, on the other hand, hold that a minimal contact, like a touch, is not an exercise of physical force. According to the United States, if the Supreme Court agrees with this view, it would undermine the ACCA and other federal laws, providing a loophole for some violent offenders that Congress intended to target. In particular, it would potentially neutralize federal domestic violence laws, which, like the ACCA, rely on the use of physical force as an element in defining punishable acts. The United States contends that this could lead to situations in which a husband convicted of battery under state law for angrily touching his wife and pushing her against a car could not be punished under federal domestic violence laws. ??
Johnson and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (“NACDL”) fear that a decision in favor of the United States would adversely affect the rule of lenity. The rule of lenity requires courts to resolve ambiguities in criminal statutes in favor of defendants. Johnson contends that the ACCA’s use of the term “physical force” is ambiguous with regard to mere nonconsensual touching and that resolving this ambiguity against him, the defendant, would undermine the rule of lenity. The NACDL also fears that if courts refuse to apply the rule of lenity in cases such as this, “defendant[s] will serve  mandatory minimum sentence[s] for conduct that Congress simply did not intend to reach.” The United States, however, rejoins that a decision in its favor would not undermine the rule of lenity, because the rule of lenity only applies to grievous ambiguities, and no such ambiguity exists in this case.
In this case, the Supreme Court will decide whether a felony battery that can be committed by either striking or touching another person meets the physical force requirement of the Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”) and, as such, is a “violent felony.” Petitioner, Curtis Darnell Johnson (“Johnson”) is appealing the mandatory minimum prison sentence that he received under the ACCA. Respondent, the United States, maintains that Johnson’s sentence was appropriate.
Interpretation of “Battery” and “Physical Force”
Johnson contends that a battery cannot be a “violent felony” under the ACCA, because one of its elements, “physical force,” should be interpreted to require conduct that is “violent, aggressive, and likely to create a serious potential risk of physical injury.” The United States disagrees, arguing that the harsher mandatory sentences that the ACCA requires can be triggered by felonies that may only require minimal physical contact and, regardless, the accepted definition of battery is already something more than minimal physical contact. The United States questions whether battery, which is committed by “intentionally touch[ing] or strik[ing] another person against [his or her] will,” really can be committed by just the lightest touch.
Johnson contends that the plain meaning of the words “physical force” suggests a violent and aggressive application of force with the possibility of physical harm and not just lightly touching someone. Furthermore, Johnson’s argues that battery in Florida can be committed simply by touching another against his or her will, which does not have the same violent and aggressive connotation as the use of “physical force.” Accordingly, such battery should not qualify as a “violent felony” under the ACCA. The United States counters that “touching” does, indeed, involve physical force.
The United States contends that Johnson’s arguments rely on an erroneous assumption that the ACCA applies only if the offense that a defendant has committed, when viewed abstractly, always requires the use of physical force. According to the United States, the ACCA requires only that the actual or typical factual circumstances of the battery satisfy the definition of a violent felony. The United States asserts that Johnson has provided no evidence that the particular battery that he committed involved mere touching. Furthermore, the United States has been unable to identify cases in which harmless touching with minimal physical contact were prosecuted as batteries.
Both parties look to Congress’ intent in passing the ACCA as a guide for how the Court should interpret the language of the ACCA, but they offer different interpretations as to what that intent is. Johnson argues that Congress intended to target only the worst criminals, not people who might have only lightly touched another person as one of their violent felonies. Relying on the testimony of an Assistant Attorney General, Johnson also argues that Congress intended to prioritize certain crimes for extra punishment over other “garden variety” crimes like battery.
Conversely, the United States argues that the use of the vague term, “physical force,” implies that Congress wanted the statute to capture a broad array of conduct. Furthermore, Congress was more concerned with individuals repeatedly engaging in conduct that carries inherent risks, such as deliberate, nonconsensual physical contact, than with drawing fine lines between different degrees of force.
“Batteries Not Included”—Whether the Court Should Follow a Decision by the Florida State Supreme Court
Johnson contends that the federal court that sentenced him should have treated a related Florida Supreme Court decision as binding precedent, as federal courts generally must apply the substantive state criminal law of the state in which they are located. The Florida Supreme Court previously ruled that battery, because it could be committed by touching and did not necessarily require physical force, did not count as a “forcible felony” for purposes of a Florida statute that, much like the ACCA, prescribes harsher punishments for felons who commit multiple violent felonies. The federal court, according to Johnson, should have applied that ruling and found that the battery committed by Johnson was not a “violent felony” under the ACCA. .
The United States rejoins that the in Florida Supreme Court decision involved a state court interpreting a state statute and that that decision is not binding on a federal court’s interpretation of a differently worded federal statute. According to the United States, even if the Florida Supreme Court’s decision were binding, the decision on which Johnson is relying is distinguishable, because the Florida statute includes additional, clarifying language, which the ACCA does not contain.
The Rule of Lenity
Johnson argues that even if the Supreme Court disagrees with his contention that the battery falls outside of the ACCA’s definition of a “violent felony,” the Court should overturn his sentence under the rule of lenity. According to Johnson, the underlying rationale of the rule of lenity is that it is wrong to expect individuals to follow the law when the law is unclear. Here, the law is unclear: the array of arguments and court decisions that each side uses to contradict each other is evidence of such ambiguity.
Conversely, the United States’ argues that, under Supreme Court precedent, the rule of lenity applies only to cases of “grievous ambiguity.” A “grievous ambiguity” exists if a court has little information pointing in any direction and can only make a stab in the dark as to what Congress intended. The United States argues that the statute’s “language, context, history, and purpose” all indicate that there is no such ambiguity in this case, but rather merely a different, conceivable interpretation which would not trigger the application of the rule.
The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (“NACDL”) counters the United State’s argument, observing that the Court’s decisions have not always mentioned the heightened standard of “grievous ambiguity.” The NACDL argues that, in order to promote fairness in the criminal justice system, the rule of lenity should apply whenever a criminal statute is unclear.
In this case, the Supreme Court will resolve a complex issue of statutory interpretation. The Court’s decision will resolve whether a felony battery that can be committed by either striking or touching another person meets the Armed Career Criminal Act’s (“ACCA”) physical force requirement and, thereby, triggers the ACCA’s mandatory minimum sentence for repeat, violent offenders. This case also presents the Court with the opportunity to clarify (1) whether the rule of lenity only applies if there is “grievous ambiguity” and (2) whether federal courts are bound by state court precedent interpreting the meaning of particular words in a similar statutory context.
Edited by: Lara Haddad
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