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Monday, 15 March 2010

Curtis Darnell Johnson, who pleaded guilty in 2007 to unlawfully transporting firearms, current 15-year sentence will be reduced.

Curtis Darnell Johnson, who pleaded guilty in 2007 to unlawfully transporting firearms, current 15-year sentence will be reduced.Prosecutors had used a 2002 battery conviction as one of the underlying crimes to charge him as an armed career criminal. But Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for a 7-2 majority, said Florida's battery statute doesn't constitute a violent felony because physical force isn't an element of the crime.
Johnson, 41, now faces a 10-year maximum and just two to three years under federal sentencing guidelines, said Assistant Federal Defender Lisa Call of Jacksonville, who argued the case in Washington in October. She said she felt confident after the argument - her first before the Supreme Court - because the justices seemed focused on the issue.
Not without complicationsBut the impact of the decision extends beyond Johnson."When Congress writes these general criminal laws, they want to piggyback on broad categories of state crimes," said Florida Coastal School of Law professor B.J. Priester. "The Supreme Court instructed the lower courts that they have to do a more nuanced interpretation of these state laws."
Ohio State University law professor Douglas Berman said the opinion is the latest in a series of high court rulings to scale back the types of crimes prosecutors can use to enhance sentences under the Armed Career Criminal Act. The stiff minimum sentences have given prosecutors more bargaining power to leverage pleas, said Berman, who teaches criminal sentencing.He said federal sentencing laws that are triggered by state crimes are bound to be complicated because each state has its own set of laws.
"What's really a mess is the way Congress wrote this statute," Berman said. "The Supreme Court has come to the conclusion that this is meant for people who have a more serious criminal history."The opinion won't impact state prosecutions because it only applies to federal gun crimes, said attorney A. Russell Smith of Jacksonville, former president of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. What's unclear is how many federal cases will be affected."It's going to have defense lawyers carefully scrutinizing the specifics of prior convictions the government is using to enhance sentences," Smith said.
Johnson has prior convictions dating back to 1985 for aggravated battery, burglary and cocaine possession. He also had a previous misdemeanor battery conviction, which meant his second one became a felony under Florida law.Federal prosecutors used the second battery as an underlying felony under the Armed Career Criminal Act. But Scalia noted that the Florida Supreme Court had previously determined that battery can be proven with any intentional physical contact, no matter how slight.
Because of that, Scalia wrote, the crime doesn't necessarily include physical force, which is required to enhance a sentence under the federal act. The U.S. Attorney's Office declined comment on the ruling.Call said Johnson was excited when told of the opinion. She said interacting with the Supreme Court justices was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and she praised the Federal Defender's Office for helping her prepare.



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