Supreme Court hears argument on sentencing guidelines

Supreme Court hears argument on sentencing guidelines

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website] heard oral arguments [day call, PDF] Monday in Beckles v. United States [SCOTUSblog materials], a case analyzing whether the residual definition of “crime of violence” in §4B1.2 of the US Sentencing Guildelines (USSG) [text] is unconstitutionally vague. The case comes after the court’s 2015 decision in Johnson v. United States [SCOTUSblog materials], which held that a residual clause in the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) [text] was unconstitutionally vague. Beckles argues that because the residual clause in the USSG contains the exact same wording, it is equally vague and thus should be ruled unconstitutional. Beckles also argues that this rule should be applied retroactively on collateral review because it would be a substantive change to constitutional law, just as the Johnson ruling was determined to apply retroactively in Welch v. United States [JURIST report]. Beckles’ final argument is that his crime, possessing a sawed-off shotgun, is only mentioned as a “crime of violence” in the commentary to the USSG. The lower court and the US argue that this makes the case distinct from Johnson in that it provides specificity [SCOTUSblog report]. However, Beckles argues that the commentary to the residual clause cannot stand on its own, and it would hold no power if the residual clause itself is unconstitutionally vague.

Various aspects of the sentencing structure in the US criminal justice system have been at issue recently. At the end of October the Supreme Court remanded five juvenile offender cases [JURIST report] to be reviewed in light of last term’s Montgomery v. Louisiana decision, which held [JURIST report] that a landmark decision banning mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles should apply retroactively. In August the Ohio Supreme Court ruled [JURIST report] that courts cannot use prior juvenile charges to enhance the sentence of an adult criminal offender. In June the Supreme Court ruled [JURIST report] that a prior crime can be used for imposing enhanced federal sentences in a new conviction under the ACCA.

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