Beckles v. United States: Federal sentencing guidelines are not subject to due process vagueness challenges
The federal sentencing guidelines are not subject to vagueness challenges under the Due Process Clause, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled March 6 in Beckles v. United States.
This is because the Guidelines do not fix the permissible range of sentences, but merely guide the exercise of a court’s discretion in choosing an appropriate sentence.
The Court held that even though the Guidelines’ “crime of violence” residual clause was identical to the “crime of violence” residual clause struck down as vague in Johnson v. United States (2015), the Guidelines’ residual clause was not subject to such attack.
The Court’s ruling overturned decisions by the majority of Court of Appeals which had considered the issue.
Travis Beckles was convicted of possession of a firearm by a felon. He possessed a sawed-off shotgun.
Under the 2006 version of the sentencing Guidelines applicable to him, he was eligible for sentencing enhancement for a “crime of violence,” which the Guidelines defined as an offense that “involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.” The commentary to the Guidelines provided that possession of a sawed-off shotgun was a “crime of violence.”
Beckles argued that his enhanced sentence violated due process because the Guidelines “crime of violence” residual clause contained identical language to the “crime of violence” residual clause struck down in Johnson as unconstitutionally vague.
But the Supreme Court disagreed, in an opinion joined by five justices.
Void for vagueness challenges apply to “laws that define criminal offenses and laws that fix the permissible sentences for criminal offenses,” the Court said.
The Armed Career Criminal Act’s residual clause in Johnson “fixed” a higher range of sentences for certain defendants, the Court said. The Guidelines “do not fix the permissible range of sentences.” They “merely guide the exercise of a court’s discretion in choosing an appropriate sentence within the statutory range.”
The Court noted that before the Guidelines, courts had complete discretion to impose sentences within a sentencing range. “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.”
The vagueness doctrine is concerned with notice and preventing arbitrary enforcement. Notice is not an issue because “even perfectly clear Guidelines could not provide notice to a person who seeks to regulate his conduct so as to avoid particular penalties within the statutory range.”
Arbitrary enforcement is not an issue because that is concerned with allowing judges and jurors to decide what conduct is prohibited, without any fixed legal standard. The Guidelines do not prohibit any conduct, or establish minimum and maximum penalties for any crime, the Court said.
The Court noted that its ruling was not intended to make the Guidelines “immune” from any constitutional scrutiny. For example, the Court noted that a prior case held that retrospective increases in the Guidelines range violates the ex post facto clause.
Justice Kennedy concurred, but noted that as “sentencing laws and standards continue to evolve, cases may arise in which the formulation of a sentencing provision leads to a sentence, or a pattern of sentencing … so arbitrary that it implicates constitutional concerns.” In such cases, a litigant “might use the word vague in a general sense … in trying to establish that the sentencing decision was flawed.”
Justice Ginsburg concurred in the result only. She said the majority decided an unnecessary issue. Since the Guidelines’ commentary defined possessing a sawed-off shotgun as a “crime of violence,” Beckles cannot claim that the Guidelines are vague as applied to him, she said.
Justice Sotomayor agreed with Ginsburg, but went further and said that given the central role that Guidelines play at sentencing, they should be subject to vagueness challenges.
She noted that the Guidelines set the baseline by which judges will guide their sentences. “It is not reliance on discretion that makes a sentencing regime vague; it is reliance on an impenetrable rule as a baseline for exercise of that discretion,” she said.
Justice Kagan did not participate in the case.