Yesterday, April 17, 2018, in Sessions v. Dimaya, No. 15-1498, the Supreme Court (in a 5-4 decision) held that 18 U.S.C. § 16’s residual clause is unconstitutionally vague. At issue in the case, the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) provides that a noncitizen convicted of an “aggravated felony” after entering the United States will be deported. 8 U.S.C. §§ 1227(a)(2)(A)(iii), 1229b(a)(3), (b)(1)(C).
Under the INA, an “aggravated felony” includes, among other offenses, a “crime of violence” as defined in 18 U.S.C. § 16 (excluding a purely political offense) for which the term of imprisonment is at least one year. The term “crime of violence” under § 16 is defined as “(a) an offense that has as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person or property of another, or (b) any other offense that is a felony and that, by its nature, involves a substantial risk that physical force against the person or property of another may be used in the course of committing the offense.” Subsection (b) is typically referred to as a residual clause.
A majority of the Court held that a straightforward application of Johnson v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 2551 (2015) resolved this case. In Johnson, the Supreme Court held that a similar residual clause found in the Armed Career Criminal Act, 18 U.S.C. § 924(e), violated the Constitution’s guarantee of due process. In that case, the residual clause was used to increase a criminal defendant’s sentencing range. Although the specific language of the residual clause in § 16(b) was not identical to the residual clause of § 924(e), the Court held that it suffered the same infirmities.
Specifically, the Court found two features of the residual clause in both statutes conspired to make them unconstitutional: determining an “ordinary case” and determining the risk posed by the crime. The majority rejected the government’s attempts to distinguish the two clauses.
Justice Gorsuch joined with Justices Kagan, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor, in finding the residual clause unconstitutionally vague.
Although Justice Gorsuch filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, he did not join in all parts of the opinion authored by Justice Kagan. Chief Justice Roberts filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justices Kennedy, Thomas, and Alito, joined. Justice Thomas filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justices Kennedy and Alito joined in part.