Thoughts on Sentencing Guidelines: Beckles v. United States

This post is written by Associate Editor Julie Allen. Opinions and views expressed herein are those of the writer alone.

The United States has a long and complicated history with criminal sentencing—and issues related to criminal sentencing are still being argued before the Supreme Court.  Beckles v. United States is the most recent in a long line of these cases.  In this case, the police charged Travis Beckles (the Petitioner) with one count of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, in violation of 18. U.S.C. §922(g)(1).[1]  The presentence investigation report recommended that Petitioner be sentenced as a career offender, relying on the commentary to §4B1.2 (the advisory Guidelines), because Petitioner possessed a sawed-off shotgun.[2]  The designation as a career offender enhanced Petitioner’s sentence from a range of 262 to 327 months to a range of 360 months to life.[3]   Argued before the Supreme Court in November 2016 and decided in March 2017, Beckles raised the issue of whether commentary to the Sentencing Guidelines is void for vagueness, based on a similar argument made in Johnson v. United States, which the Supreme Court decided in 2015.[4]

The issue of enhanced sentences first arose in context of the Advanced Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”), under which this Court found the residual clause, which defined violent felony as “[…] any crime involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another” unconstitutionally vague.”[5]  In determining the residual clause was unconstitutionally vague, the Court stated that the “indeterminacy of the wide-ranging inquiry [in the sentencing procedure] by the residual clause both denies fair notice to defendants and invites arbitrary enforcement by judges.”[6]  In other words, part of due process requires that when a defendant commits a crime he or she is aware of what the punishment may entail.  The residual clause of ACCA did not give the required notice because it was so vague as to be arbitrary (meaning that any defendant who committed a crime could not even guess as to what his sentence would be).

The defendant, Travis Beckles, argued that Johnson applied to the Sentencing Guidelines, because the residual clause that applied to Beckles used the same language that was found “void for vagueness” in ACCA.[7]  Writing for the majority of the Court, Justice Thomas found that the Sentencing Guidelines could not be subject to a vagueness challenge because judges have discretion to deviate from the Guidelines when determining a sentence—in other words, the Guidelines are advisory-only, unlike the ACCA.[8]

So, what does this decision mean for defendants going forward? This decision clearly (or maybe not so clearly, per Justice Kennedy) ends any vagueness challenges to the advisory guideline provisions.  Justice Thomas noted that all the advisory guidelines are all equally vague, so allowing one to be subject to vagueness challenge would open the proverbial floodgates.[9]  Although concurring with Justice Thomas, Justice Kennedy noted that the “vagueness” door may not be closed yet—and that there may be a time where a sentence, or a pattern of sentencing, that is so arbitrary that it implicates constitutional challenges.[10]  Until then, however, whenever a judge uses her discretion under the Sentencing Guidelines advisory guidelines to set a sentence, a defendant will not be able to raise vagueness to challenge it.

[1] Beckles v. United States, 580 U.S. 866, 891 (2017).

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] Id.

[5] Johnson v. United States, 135 S. Ct. 2551 (2015).

[6] Id. at 2557.

[7] Beckles at 891.

[8] Id. at 894.

[9] Id. at 895.

[10] Id. at 897.

Author: nkylrev

The Northern Kentucky Law Review, founded in 1973, is an independent journal, edited and published entirely by the students of NKU Chase College of Law.

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