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Supreme Court decision addresses vague wording in federal law

Ohio residents may favor tough penalties for repeat offenders, especially those who have been previously convicted of violent crimes. However, a federal law established in 1984 to impose stronger penalties on so-called career criminals has been found by the nation's highest court to be unconstitutionally vague in an important area. The 8-1 decision is the culmination of several years' efforts to deal with the interpretation of a certain clause.

The law allows for additional prison time to be added to the sentences of individuals who have at least three prior convictions of violent felonies. However, the general wording of the law often created a need for interpretation. Various courts throughout the nation have had to determine what types of activities fall under the phrase "conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another".

In the case leading to this ruling, the defendant's offense was possession of a firearm. Although the law used to impose a longer sentence on the defendant does define some examples of violent crime subject to the penalty, firearm possession is not specifically listed. Justice Scalia, who wrote the decision on the matter, noted that the law leaves too much room for criminalizing conduct that is simply annoying. Although arguments were presented to affirm the fact that judges in lower courts have added at least 17 specific offenses to the list of those posing the risk of serious physical injury, this was not enough to sway the justices.

A criminal defense lawyer working with a client who has multiple prior offenses might work to seek a plea deal if there is convincing evidence against the individual. However, a charge is not the same as a conviction, and a lawyer may focus on reminding officials that a prior offense does not mean that a defendant is guilty. In case of a conviction, a lawyer might need to point out legal limitations on the sentencing of a client.

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