Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Beckles v. United States

United States Supreme Court

March 6, 2017

TRAVIS BECKLES, PETITIONER
v.
UNITED STATES

          Argued November 28, 2016

         Syllabus

         Petitioner Beckles was convicted of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, 18 U.S.C. §922(g)(1). His presentence investigation report concluded that he was eligible for a sentencing enhancement as a "career offender" under United States Sentencing Guideline §4Bl.l(a) because his offense qualified as a "crime of violence" under §4B1.2(a)'s residual clause. The District Court sentenced petitioner as a career offender, and the Eleventh Circuit affirmed. Petitioner then 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. Petitioner next filed a petition for a writ of certiorari from this Court. While his petition was pending, 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, Johnson v. United States, 576 U.S. ___. The Court vacated and remanded petitioner's case in light of Johnson. On remand, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed again, distinguishing the ACCA's unconstitutionally vague residual clause from the residual clause in the Sentencing Guidelines.

         Held: The Federal Sentencing Guidelines, including §4B1.2(a)'s residual clause, are not subject to vagueness challenges under the Due Process Clause. Pp. 4-13.

         (a) The Due Process Clause 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." Johnson, supra, at ___ Under the void-for-vagueness doctrine, laws that fix the permissible sentences for criminal offenses must specify the range of available sentences with "sufficient clarity." United States v. Batchelder, 442 U.S. 114, 123. In Johnson, this Court held that the ACCA's residual clause fixed-in an impermissibly vague way-a higher range of sentences for certain defendants. But the advisory 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. Pp. 4- 10.

         (1) The limited scope of the void-for-vagueness doctrine in this context is rooted in the history of federal sentencing. Congress has long permitted district courts "wide discretion to decide whether the offender should be incarcerated and for how long." Mistretta v. United States, 488 U.S. 361, 363. Yet this Court has "never doubted the authority of a judge to exercise broad discretion in imposing a sentence within a statutory range, " United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220, 233, nor suggested that a defendant can successfully challenge as vague a sentencing statute conferring discretion to select an appropriate sentence from within a statutory range, even when that discretion is unfettered, see Batchelder, supra, at 123, 126. Pp. 6-7.

         (2) The Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 departed from this regime by establishing several factors to guide district courts in exercising their sentencing discretion. It also created the United States Sentencing Commission and charged it with establishing the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. Because the Guidelines have been rendered "effectively advisory" by this Court, Booker, supra, at 245, 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 underlying 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. Pp. 7-10.

         (b) The holding in this case does not render the advisory Guidelines immune from constitutional scrutiny, see, e.g., Peugh v. United States, 569 U.S. ___, or render "sentencing procedure [s]" entirely "immune from scrutiny under the due process clause, " Williams v. New York, 337 U.S. 241, 252, n. 18. This Court holds only that the Sentencing Guidelines are not subject to a challenge under the void- for-vagueness doctrine. Pp. 10-11.

(c) Nor does this holding cast doubt on the validity of the other factors that sentencing courts must consider in exercising their sentencing discretion. See §§3553(a)(1)-(3), (5)-(7). A contrary holding, however, would cast serious doubt on those other factors because many of them appear at least as unclear as §4B1.2(a)'s residual clause. This Court rejects the Government's argument that the individualized sentencing required by those other factors is distinguishable from that required by the Guidelines. It is far from obvious that §4B1.2(a)'s residual clause implicates the twin concerns of vagueness more than the other factors do, and neither the Guidelines nor the other factors implicate those concerns more than the absence of any guidance at all, which the Government concedes is constitutional. Pp. 11-13.

616 Fed.Appx. 415, affirmed.

         ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE ELEVENTH CIRCUIT

          THOMAS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which ROBERTS, C. J., and Kennedy, Breyer, and Alito, JJ., joined. Kennedy, J., filed a concurring opinion.

          OPINION

          THOMAS, JUSTICE

         At the time of petitioner's sentencing, the advisory Sentencing Guidelines included a residual clause defining a "crime of violence" as an offense that "involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another." United States Sentencing Commission, Guidelines Manual §4B1.2(a)(2) (Nov. 2006) (USSG). This Court held in Johnson v. United States, 576 U.S. ___ (2015), that the identically worded residual clause in the Armed Career Criminal Act of 1984 (ACCA), 18 U.S.C. §924(e)(2)(B), was unconstitutionally vague. Petitioner contends that the Guidelines' residual clause is also void for vagueness. Because we hold that the advisory Guidelines are not subject to vagueness challenges under the Due Process Clause, we reject petitioner's argument.

         I

         Petitioner Travis Beckles was convicted in 2007 of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, §922(g)(1). According to the presentence investigation report, the firearm was a sawed-off shotgun, and petitioner was therefore eligible for a sentencing enhancement as a "career offender" under the Sentencing Guidelines. The 2006 version of the Guidelines, which were in effect when petitioner was sentenced, [1] provided that "[a] defendant is a career offender if

"(1) the defendant was at least eighteen years old at the time the defendant committed the instant offense of conviction; (2) the instant offense of conviction is a felony that is either a crime of violence or a controlled substance offense; and (3) the defendant has at least two prior felony convictions of either a crime of violence or a controlled substance offense." USSG §4Bl.l(a).

         The Guidelines defined "crime of violence" as

"any offense under federal or state law, punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year that- "(1) has as an element the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against the person of another, or
"(2) is burglary of a dwelling, arson, or extortion, involves use of explosives, or otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another." §4B1.2(a) (emphasis added).

         The clause beginning with "or otherwise" in this definition is known as the residual clause.

         The commentary to the career-offender Guideline provided that possession of a sawed-off shotgun was a crime of violence. See §4B1.2, comment., n. 1 ("Unlawfully possessing a firearm described in 26 U.S.C. §5845(a) (e.g., a sawed-off shotgun . . .) is a 'crime of violence'"); §5845(a) ("The term 'firearm' means (1) a shotgun having a barrel or barrels of less than 18 inches in length").

         The District Court agreed that petitioner qualified as a career offender under the Guidelines. Petitioner was over 18 years of age at the time of his offense, and his criminal history included multiple prior felony convictions for controlled substance offenses. Furthermore, in the District Court's view, petitioner's §922(g)(1) conviction qualified as a "crime of violence." Because he qualified as a career offender, petitioner's Guidelines range was 360 months to life imprisonment. The District Court sentenced petitioner to 360 months. The Court of Appeals affirmed petitioner's conviction and sentence, and this Court denied certiorari. United States v. Beckles, 565 F.3d 832, 846 (CA11), cert denied, 558 U.S. 906 (2009).

         In September 2010, petitioner filed a motion to vacate his sentence under 28 U.S.C. §2255, arguing that his conviction for unlawful possession of a firearm was not a "crime of violence, " and therefore that he did not qualify as a career offender under the Guidelines. The District Court denied the motion, and the Court of Appeals affirmed.

         Petitioner then filed a second petition for certiorari in this Court. While his petition was pending, the Court decided Johnson, holding that "imposing an increased sentence under the residual clause of the [ACCA]"-which contained the same language as the Guidelines' residual clause-"violate[d] the Constitution's guarantee of due process" because the clause was unconstitutionally vague. 576 U.S., at ___ (slip op., at 15). We subsequently granted his petition, vacated the judgment of the Court of Appeals, and remanded for further consideration in light of Johnson. Beckles v. United States, 576 U.S. ___ (2015).

         On remand, petitioner argued that his enhanced sentence was based on §4B1.2(a)'s residual clause, which he contended was unconstitutionally vague under Johnson. The Court of Appeals again affirmed. It noted that petitioner "was sentenced as a career offender based not on the ACCA's residual clause, but based on express Ian- guage in the Sentencing Guidelines classifying [his] offense as a 'crime of violence.'" 616 Fed.Appx. 415, 416 (2015) (per curiam). "Johnson, " the Court of Appeals reasoned, "says and decided nothing about career-offender enhancements under the Sentencing Guidelines or about the Guidelines commentary underlying [petitioner]'s status as a career-offender." Ibid. The Court of Appeals denied rehearing en banc.

         Petitioner filed another petition for certiorari in this Court, again contending that §4B1.2(a)'s residual clause is void for vagueness. To resolve a conflict among the Courts of Appeals on the question whether Johnsons vagueness holding applies to the residual clause in §4B1.2(a) of the Guidelines, [2] we granted certiorari. 579 U.S. ___ (2016). Because the United States, as respondent, agrees with petitioner that the Guidelines are subject to vagueness challenges, the Court appointed Adam K. Mortara as amicus curiae to argue the contrary position. 579 U.S. ___ (2016). He has ably discharged his responsibilities.

         II

         This Court has held that the Due Process Clause 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." Johnson, 576 U.S., at ___ - ___ (slip op., at 3-4) (citing Kolender v. Lawson, 461 U.S. 352, 357-358 (1983)). Applying this standard, the Court has invalidated two kinds of criminal laws as "void for vagueness": laws that define criminal offenses and laws that fix the permissible sentences for criminal offenses.

         For the former, the Court has explained that "the void-for-vagueness doctrine requires that a penal statute define the criminal offense with sufficient definiteness that ordinary people can understand what conduct is prohibited and in a manner that does not encourage arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement." Id., at 357. For the latter, the Court has explained that "statutes fixing sentences, " Johnson, supra, at ___ (slip op., at 4) (citing United States v. Batchelder, 442 U.S. 114, 123 (1979)), must specify the range of available sentences with "sufficient clarity, " id., at 123; see also United States v. Evans, 333 U.S. 483 (1948); cf. Giaccio v. Pennsylvania, 382 U.S. 399 (1966).

         In Johnson, we applied the vagueness rule to a statute fixing permissible sentences. The ACCA's residual clause, where applicable, required sentencing courts to increase a defendant's prison term from a statutory maximum of 10 years to a minimum of 15 years. That requirement thus fixed-in an impermissibly vague way-a higher range of sentences for certain defendants. See Alleyne v. United States, 570 U.S. ___, ___ (2013) (describing the legally prescribed range of available sentences as the penalty fixed to a crime).

         Unlike the ACCA, however, 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. Accordingly, the Guidelines are not subject to a vagueness challenge under the Due ...


Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.