Beckles v United States Upholds Constitutionality of Federal Sentencing Guidelines
In Beckles v United States, 580 U. S. ____ (2017), the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the country’s federal sentencing guidelines. By a vote of 7-0, the Court held that the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, including Section 4B1.2(a)’s residual clause, are not subject to vagueness challenges under the Constitution’s Due Process Clause.
Facts of Beckles v United States
Tavis Beckles was convicted of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. His presentence investigation report concluded that he was eligible for a sentencing enhancement as a “career offender” under United States Sentencing Guideline §4B1.1(a) because his offense qualified as a “crime of violence” under the guidelines’ residual clause. The District Court sentenced Beckles as a career offender, and the Eleventh Circuit affirmed.
Beckles subsequently filed a postconviction motion to vacate his sentence, arguing that his offense was not a “crime of violence.” The District Court denied the motion, and the Eleventh Circuit affirmed. While Beckles’ petition for certiorari was pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, this Court held that the identically worded residual clause in the Armed Career Criminal Act of 1984 (ACCA), §924(e)(2)(b), was unconstitutionally vague. The Court vacated and remanded the case in light of its decision in Johnson v. United States, 576 U. S. ___. On remand, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed again, distinguishing the ACCA’s unconstitutionally vague residual clause from the residual clause in the Sentencing Guidelines.
Precedent Governing Federal Sentencing
The Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment prohibits the Government from “taking away someone’s life, liberty, or property under a criminal law so vague that it fails to give ordinary people fair notice of the conduct it punishes, or so standardless that it invites arbitrary enforcement.” Meanwhile, the void-for-vagueness doctrine mandates that laws fixing the permissible sentences for criminal offenses must specify the range of available sentences with “sufficient clarity.”
In Johnson v. United States, the Supreme Court held that the residual clause in the ACCA was unconstitutionally vague and violated the due process rights of the petitioner. The statute imposes increased sentences on defendants charged with illegal possession of firearms who have previously been convicted of three or more “violent” felonies. As Justice Antonin Scalia explained, the clause was unconstitutionally vague for two reasons:
By tying the judicial assessment of risk to a judicially imagined “ordinary case” of a crime rather than to real-world facts or statutory elements, the clause leaves grave uncertainty about how to estimate the risk posed by a crime. At the same time, the residual clause leaves uncertainty about how much risk it takes for a crime to qualify as a violent felony. Taken together, these uncertainties produce more unpredictability and arbitrariness than the Due Process Clause tolerates.
The Court’s Decision in Beckles v United States
The Supreme Court held that the federal government’s advisory sentencing guidelines are immune from vagueness challenges under the Due Process Clause. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote on behalf of the Court. Justice Elena Kagan recused herself and took no part in the case.
In reaching its decision, the Court distinguished the sentencing guidelines from statutory law. As Justice Thomas noted, “The advisory Guidelines do not fix the permissible range of sentences. To the contrary, they merely guide the exercise of a court’s discretion in choosing an appropriate sentence within the statutory range.” As the opinion further explained:
Because the Guidelines have been rendered “effectively advisory” by this Court, they guide district courts in exercising their discretion, but do not constrain that discretion. Accordingly, they are not amenable to vagueness challenges: If a system of unfettered discretion is not unconstitutionally vague, then it is difficult to see how the present system of guided discretion could be. Neither do they implicate the twin concerns under- lying vagueness doctrine—providing notice and preventing arbitrary enforcement. The applicable statutory range, which establishes the permissible bounds of the court’s sentencing discretion, provides all the notice that is required. Similarly, the Guidelines do not invite arbitrary enforcement within the meaning of this Court’s case law, because they do not permit the sentencing court to prohibit behavior or to prescribe the sentencing ranges available. Rather, they advise sentencing courts how to exercise their discretion within the bounds established by Congress.
Nonetheless, the Court emphasized that it was only holding that the Sentencing Guidelines are not subject to a challenge under the void-for-vagueness doctrine. Accordingly, its decision “does not render the advisory Guidelines immune from constitutional scrutiny.
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Congress of the United States begun and held at the City of New-York, on Wednesday the fourth of March, one thousand seven hundred and eighty nine.
THE Conventions of a number of the States, having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution.