US Sentencing Guidelines Immune to Constitutional Vagueness Challenge

Today in Beckles v. United States, the US Supreme Court held that the United States Sentencing Guidelines are not subject to vagueness challenges under the Constitution’s Due Process Clause. Although the majority opinion, written by Justice Clarence Thomas, makes clear that the Guidelines remain subject to constitutional challenges in other areas, the decision resolves the question of whether the Court’s prior decision in Johnson v. United States applies to the Sentencing Guidelines. Johnson, a 2015 case that held that the residual clause of the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) is void because it is unconstitutionally vague, has ignited a firestorm of litigation in federal courts across the country, challenging similar language in other criminal statutes.

What follows is a brief summary of Beckles’ key facts and analysis. In 2007, Travis Beckles was convicted of possession of a firearm by a felon. Because the firearm at issue was a sawed-off shotgun, Beckles was eligible for a “career offender” sentencing enhancement. Sentencing enhancements are means by which the Guidelines call for stiffer penalties depending upon the facts and circumstances of a particular defendant and case.

Under the 2006 Guidelines, is defendant is a career offender if he was at least 18 years old a the time of the offense, the offense is a felony that is either a crime of violence or a controlled substance offense; and the defendant has at least two prior felony convictions of either a crime of violence or a controlled substance offense. The Guidelines defined a crime of violence as, among other things, one that “otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.” The italicized language above is commonly referred to as the “residual clause.”

In Johnson, the Court held that the identically-worded residual clause in the ACCA is void for vagueness. In short, this means that ACCA’s residual clause, which increased a defendant’s prison term from a statutory maximum of 10 years to a minimum of 15 years, left too much uncertainty about what crimes fell within the clause’s reach.

In Beckles, however, the Court determined that because the Guidelines are advisory, and not mandatory, “they merely guide the exercise of a court’s discretion in choosing an appropriate sentence within the statutory range.” In reaching its opinion, the Court explained the “unfettered discretion” previously exercised by sentencing judges before the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, which established the United States Sentencing Commission and charged it with developing the Guidelines. The Court reasoned, “[i]f a system of unfettered discretion is not unconstitutionally vague, then it is difficult to see how the present system of guided discretion could be.”

Beckels is the first of a few highly-anticipated opinions concerning the reach of the Court’s decision in Johnson. In Sessions v. Dimaya (formerly Lynch v. Dimaya), the Court is expected to rule on whether 18 U.S.C. §16(b), as incorporated into the Immigration and Nationality Act’s provisions governing an alien’s removal from the United States, is unconstitutionally vague under Johnson.  Section 16(b) has a residual clause that is identical to the one defining a “crime of violence” in 18 USC §924(c), another firearm statute that imposes mandatory minimum sentences.

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