The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear the appeal of a Silver Spring man who said his conviction for gun possession while illegally using or addicted to a controlled substance should be overturned because the law is unconstitutionally vague.
Without comment, the justices last month let stand a 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision that Christopher Paul Hasson first had to show he did not understand that the law applied to him before he could argue that the statute is facially vague and therefore void.
Hasson, whom prosecutors alleged was stockpiling weapons and plotting to kill Democratic congressional leaders, had failed to argue that he did not understand the law applied to him, the 4th Circuit said.
In Hasson’s ill-fated bid for Supreme Court review, his attorney wrote that a defendant’s perception of the law is irrelevant as a matter of due process if the criminal statute is unclear. The constitutional separation of powers requires that Congress not leave it to the courts to clarify ambiguities in criminal statutes, added Cullen Macbeth, an assistant federal public defender for Maryland.
“Until recently, this (Supreme) Court rooted the vagueness doctrine in the Due Process Clause and attendant notions of fair notice and evenhanded enforcement,” Macbeth wrote.
“On that understanding, it may have made sense to hold that where a defendant surely knows a statute proscribes his own conduct, no constitutional violation occurs,” Macbeth added. “More recent cases, however, have emphasized that the void for vagueness doctrine owes an equal debt to the separation of powers. … And this court treats separation of powers/non-delegation claims as inherently facial claims that do not depend on the facts of a particular case.”
U.S. Solicitor General Elizabeth B. Prelogar responded that a defendant’s personal understanding of the law is a valid threshold question in addressing the defense’s argument that the law is facially vague.
“This court has repeatedly held that, at least outside the context of laws that restrict speech, a person who engages in some conduct that is clearly proscribed cannot complain of the vagueness of the law as applied to the conduct of others,” Prelogar wrote in successfully urging the justices to deny Hasson’s request for review.
The case was docketed at the Supreme Court as Christopher Paul Hasson v. United States of America, No. 22-5119.
Hasson, a former U.S. Coast Guard officer, pleaded guilty in 2020 in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt to possession of a firearm by someone “who is an unlawful user of or addicted to a controlled substance.”
In his plea, Hasson acknowledged he had unlawfully consumed the drug Tramadol but contended that the statutory phrases “unlawful user” and “addicted to” are vague as a general matter.
The plea agreement allowed Hasson to challenge the statute as unconstitutionally vague on appeal.
Though sentencing guidelines called for a four-year prison sentence, U.S. District Judge George J. Hazel sentenced Hasson to 13 years and four months under a penalty enhancement provision for those involved in terrorism.
Hazel noted that investigators found 15 guns, including seven rifles, and more than 1,000 rounds of ammunition when they searched Hasson’s basement apartment in Silver Spring.
According to federal prosecutors, Hasson drew up what appeared to be a computer spreadsheet hit list naming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California; Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer of New York; and 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts.
At sentencing, Hazel said he believed Hasson was preparing to carry out a “mass casualty assault as a way to act out his white nationalist views.”
The 4th Circuit upheld Hasson’s conviction in February, saying he had failed to argue before the district court that the statute was vague as applied to him.
“That abandonment dooms Hasson’s vagueness challenge,” the 4th Circuit ruled.
“The Supreme Court and this court have repeatedly held that we must consider whether a statute is vague as applied to the particular facts at issue, for a plaintiff who engages in some conduct that is clearly proscribed cannot complain of the vagueness of the law as applied to the conduct of others,” the 4th Circuit stated. “In criminal cases, then, if a law clearly prohibits a defendant’s conduct, the defendant cannot challenge, and a court cannot examine, whether the law may be vague for other hypothetical defendants.”
The 4th Circuit rendered its published decision in United States of America v. Christopher Paul Hasson, No. 20-4126.