The Supreme Court held today that a enhancement provision for a “crime of violence” was unconstitutionally vague.
What’s a “crime of violence” enhancement?
18 USC 924(b) allows for harsher penalties if an offense was a “crime of violence”, which is a criminal act “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.” In US vs Davis, the Defendant was found to have committed a crime of violence (robbery with a shotgun), he appealed his case to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court held, 5-4, that this “crime of violence” language was too vague and therefore unconstitutional.
What’s wrong with vague criminal laws?
Justice Gorsuch, writing for the majority starts off describing the danger of vague criminal laws. Basically, they don’t give the public notice of what is against the law. If you can’t tell if you are violating federal law or not, it might be unconstitutionally vague. This gives police and prosecutors the power to decide what behavior is against the law, without a defendant being able to know beforehand that he could become a defendant. From the opinion-
Vague laws contravene the “first essential of due process of law” that statutes must give people “of common intelligence” fair notice of what the law demands of them. Connally v. General Constr. Co., 269 U. S. 385, 391 (1926); see Collins v. Kentucky, 234 U. S. 634, 638 (1914). Vague statutes threaten to hand responsibility for defining crimes to relatively unaccountable police, prosecutors, and judges, eroding the people’s ability to oversee the creation of the laws they are expected to abide. See Kolender v. Lawson, 461 U. S. 352, 357–358, and n. 7 (1983); United States v. L. Cohen Grocery Co., 255 U. S. 81, 89–91 (1921); United States v. Reese, 92 U. S. 214, 221 (1876).