November 28, 2016
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE
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.
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.
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,  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).
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).
clause beginning with "or otherwise" in this
definition is known as the residual clause.
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").
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).
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
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. ___
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.
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,  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.
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.
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).
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).
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 ...