Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Supreme Court Holds Sentencing Guidelines Are Not Unconstitutionally Vague (1/7/17)

In Beckles v. United States, 580 U.S. ___ (3/6/2017), here, the Court held that the Sentencing Guidelines, advisory under Booker, are not unconstitutionally vague.  The opinion, written by Justice Thomas, reasoned from the historic understanding that a sentencing judge's discretion to render sentences within the statutory range (such as between 0 months and 60 months for tax evasion under § 7201) did not render that statutory discretion unconstitutionally vague.  Similarly, the Guidelines do not render sentencing unconstitutionally vague because all they do is provide advice as to appropriate sentences within the statutory range for the counts of conviction, but the discretion is left to the judges just as it had always been.  

I link the opinion above and offer here the Court's Syllabus of its opinion.  I boldface the part that is key to the Court's analysis:
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 §4B1.1(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. 

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