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United States Sentencing Guidelines: Defining Violent Felony Under The Armed Career Criminal Act

Supreme Court of the United States

Curtis Darnell JOHNSON, Petitioner.



130 S.Ct.1265

Decided:   March 2, 2010

IssueWhether the Florida felony offense of battery by “actually and intentionally touching” another person, which defines battery as an event that occurs when a person either “actually and intentionally touches or strikes another person against his will”, or “intentionally causes bodily harm to another person”, has an element the use of physical force against the person of another and thus constitutes a “violent felony” under the Armed Career Criminal Act.

HoldingThe Florida felony offense of battery by actually and intentionally touching another person does not have as an element the use of physical force against the person of another and does not constitute a “violent felony” under the Armed Career Criminal Act.

FactsJohnson pleaded guilty to possession of ammunition by a convicted felon.  The Government sought sentencing under the Armed Career Criminal Act, which authorizes an enhanced penalty for a person who has three previous convictions for a “violent felony”. Among the three prior felony convictions the Government proffered was Johnson’s 2003 Florida conviction for simple battery, which ordinarily a first-degree misdemeanor but was a felony conviction for Johnson because he had previously convicted of another battery.  

Under Florida law, a battery occurs when a person either

  1. Actually and intentionally touches or strikes another person against the will of the other or
  2. Intentionally causes bodily harm to another person.”  Because the elements of the offense are disjunctive, the prosecution can prove a battery in one of three ways.

At the sentencing hearing, Johnson did not dispute the two 1986 convictions were for “violent felonies” but he objected to counting his 2003 battery conviction as a violent felony, instead claiming that simple battery under Florida law is ordinarily a first-degree misdemeanor. 

 The District Court concluded that Johnson’s 2003 conviction was a violent felony under the Armed Career Criminal Act because actually and intentionally touching another constitutes the use of physical force and sentenced him to a term of 15 years and 5 months.  The Eleventh Circuit affirmed.  

Legal Analysis: The government sought an enhanced penalty under $924(e), which provides that a person who violates $922(g) and who “has three previous convictions” for “a violent felony” “committed on occasions different from one another” shall be imprisoned for a minimum of 15 years and a maximum of life.  A “violent felony” is defined as “any crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year” that:

“(i) has an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person of another; or

(ii) is burglary, arson, or extortion, involves use of explosives, or otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.” $924(e)(2)(B).

Section $924(e)(2)(B)(i) does not define “physical force,” and we therefore give the phrase its ordinary meaning. 

The common law held this element of “force” to be satisfied by even the slightest offensive touching.  The question is whether the term “force” in 18 U.S.C.  $924(e)(2)(B)(i) has the specialized meaning that it bore in the common-law definition of battery.  The Government asserts that it does.  We disagree.

Ultimately, context determines meaning and we “do not force term-of-art definitions into contexts where they plainly do not fit and produce nonsense.”  Here we are interpreting the phrase “physical force” as used in defining not the crime of battery, but rather the statutory category of “violent felon(ies).”  $924(e)(2)(B).

The court held that in the context of a statutory definition of “violent felony,” the phrase “physical force” means violent force – that is, force capable of causing physical pain or injury to another person.  The word “violent” in $924(e)(2)(B connotes a substantial degree of force.  Webster defines “violent” as “(m)oving, acting, or characterized, by physical force, especially by extreme and sudden or by unjust or improper force; furious; severe; vehement…”

The court found that is was significant that the meaning of “physical force” the Government would seek to import into this definition of “violent felony” is a meaning derived from a common-law misdemeanor.  It is unlikely that Congress would select as a term of art defining “violent felony” a phrase that the common law gave *1272 peculiar meaning only in its definition of a misdemeanor.  Of course “physical force” can be given its common-law misdemeanor meaning by artful language, but here the only text that can be claimed to accomplish that is the phrase “physical force” itself.  Since, as we have seen, that is as readily (indeed, much more readily) taken to describe violent force, there is no reason to define “violent felony” by reference to a nonviolent misdemeanor.

When the law under which the defendant has been convicted contains statutory phrases that cover several different generic crimes, some of which require violent force and some of which do not, the “’modified categorical approach’” that we have approved permits a court to determine which statutory phrase was the basis for the conviction by consulting the trial record – including charging documents, plea agreements, transcripts of plea colloquies, findings of fact and conclusions of law. 

 In conclusion, the Court refused the Government’s request to remand to the Eleventh Circuit to consider whether Johnson’s 2003 battery conviction is a “violent felony” within the meaning of the so-called “residual clause” in 18 U.S.C. $924(e)(2)(B)(ii).  The Court claimed that the Government did not keep this option alive because it disclaimed at sentencing any reliance upon the residual cause.

 The Court reversed the judgment of the Eleventh Circuit, set aside Johnson’s sentencing and remanded the case for further proceedings.