U.S. Supreme Court Strikes Down Statute as Void For Vagueness

In Sessions v. Dimaya, the U.S. Supreme Court has struck down an aspect of an immigration statute as being unconstitutionally void for vagueness. Due process requires a statute to be clear and understandable, without the requirement of speculation and guesswork. Such principles are important regardless of context, be it immigration or criminal law.

In this case, the legislature set forth what makes someone deportable, which included felony crimes of violence. The statute defined a “crime of violence” to include “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.”

The Court referenced the fact that a similar residual clause was contained in the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA), defining “violent felony” as any felony that “otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.” In that case, the Court held the statute to be unconstitutionally void for vagueness under the 5th Amendment’s due process clause. The ACCA’s residual clause created “grave uncertainty about how to estimate the risk posed by a crime” because it “tie[d] the judicial assessment of risk” to a speculative hypothesis about the crime’s “ordinary case,” but provided no guidance on how to figure out what that ordinary case was. Compounding that uncertainty, the ACCA’s residual clause layered an imprecise “serious potential risk” standard on top of the requisite “ordinary case” inquiry. The combination of “indeterminacy about how to measure the risk posed by a crime [and] indeterminacy about how much risk it takes for the crime to qualify as a violent felony,” resulted in “more unpredictability and arbitrariness than the Due Process Clause tolerates.”

Here, the Court held that the immigration law suffered from the same flaws. There was no reliable way to discern what the ordinary version of any offense looks like. And the “substantial risk” threshold is no more determinate that the ACCA’s “serious potential risk” standard.

In both instances, the language the legislature used was so vague that it was difficult to interpret. Bottom line is the justices said if the legislature wants to set the terms, it should make them clear and easily understandable and not force judges or juries to play guessing games and engage in speculation as to the meaning. Hence, this was a proper rebuke to legislatures which all too often draft vague statutes.

Often, judges bend over backwards to uphold statutes that really are unconstitutional. Hopefully the message of this case reverberates throughout the country when it comes to evaluating other statutes, including state criminal laws, which all too often are unconstitutionally vague.

Read the case here.