Using Johnson v. United States to Reframe Retroactivity for Second or Successive Collateral Challenges

February 23, 2016

The Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) provides a fifteen-year mandatory minimum sentence in federal prison for persons with at least three prior “violent felony” convictions who are subsequently convicted of being in possession of a firearm. In Johnson v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down one portion of this statute on the ground that it was unconstitutionally vague. In addition to an enumerated list of “violent felonies” that can result in a conviction, this portion included a catchall category that defined a violent felony as a crime that “otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.”

This Note examines whether federal prisoners, whose convictions and sentences under this now-unconstitutional prong of the ACCA were final before Johnson, and who have previously petitioned for habeas corpus, may again petition in federal court based on Johnson’s holding. In other words, the question, which has become the subject of a widening circuit split and is under review by the Supreme Court, is whether Johnson’s new rule about the unconstitutionality of the ACCA has been “made retroactive . . . by the Supreme Court” to federal prisoners seeking habeas corpus relief in federal court. This Note addresses this question and the circuit split that has emerged on the issue and concludes that Johnson has indeed been “made retroactive.” Finally, this Note offers a modified framework for assessing the retroactivity of new rules to second or successive habeas petitions.

March 2016

No. 4