Federal law makes firearm possession by a felon punishable by up to ten years in prison. The 1984 Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”), however, increased this sentence from 15 years to life if the offender had been convicted three or more times for a “serious drug offense” or “violent felony.” When Welch, the petitioner, was convicted for robbery, his crime was ruled a “violent felony” under the ACCA. After Welch’s appeals had been exhausted, the Supreme Court decided Johnson v. United States, finding that the residual clause in the definition of a “violent felony” which allowed prior convictions for violent crimes to hold weight, was unconstitutional under the void-for-vagueness doctrine. Welch then sought the retroactive application of Johnson to his case.
The primary issue before the Supreme Court was whether new constitutional rules should apply retroactively to cases on collateral review. The Supreme Court held that “substantive” constitutional rulings would apply retroactively, while rulings described as “procedural” would not. The Court decided, with a seven to one majority, that the decision made in Johnson v. United States was a substantive constitutional ruling that would apply retroactively to closed cases.