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1984 crime law deemed by Supreme Court to contain vague language

Although Florida officials may take a tough stance on crime, those facing legal action are entitled to proper interpretation of the laws used to make decisions about their cases. Vague language can create confusion as officials in different jurisdictions make different decisions based on their unique perspectives. This concern has even affected the Supreme Court of the United States in recent years as the Armed Career Criminal Act, a 1984 federal law, has led to challenges in interpreting a vague phrase. In fact, Justice Alito was the only dissenting vote in the 8-1 decision that deemed the phrase to be unconstitutional because of its vagueness.

In writing the decision for the court, Justice Scalia indicated that the phrase could lead to inappropriate criminalizing of some behaviors. Although the Deputy Solicitor General argued in defense of the law, noting that nearly 20 specific offenses have been defined by judges in lower courts, the Supreme Court justices noted that prior convictions could be treated as violent even if no violence had occurred.

The court is typically viewed as being tough on crime. In fact, two of the justices noted that the law was not specifically responsible for the ruling. However, the rights of those with criminal records were upheld as the justices ruled that vague language left room for abuse by officials. Although a judge may not be sympathetic to an individual who has a record of prior serious offenses, there is a legal responsibility to observe that person's rights when interpreting and applying the law.

An individual who has been convicted and sentenced based on potentially incorrect interpretations of the law might seek an opportunity to appeal. A criminal defense lawyer in such a case might work on researching the laws and evidence used to achieve the conviction or issue the sentence, seeking areas that may have left room for interpretation or bias to affect the decision.

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