On March 6, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court in Beckles v. United States unanimously held that defendants cannot challenge the federal Sentencing Guidelines as unconstitutionally vague because they are recommendations subject to a judge’s discretion, not strict and binding statutes.
The petitioner, Travis Beckles had been arrested because a sawed-off shotgun was found in his home, and he had previous felony convictions, mostly for drug possession and sales. Beckles was eventually convicted, and at sentencing the trial court deemed Beckles an armed career criminal who had been in possession of a firearm and was therefore subject to sentencing enhancement under the Sentencing Guidelines. According to the Guidelines, Beckles was eligible for a sentence range anywhere from 360 months to life imprisonment. The court sentenced him to 350 months in prison. Beckles appealed and the US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed Beckles’ conviction and sentence. Beckles then appealed to the US Supreme Court, challenging the constitutionality of the residual clause of the career-offender provision of the Sentencing Guidelines in response to the Supreme Court’s decision 2015 in Johnson v. United States, which held an identically worded statute in the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) to be unconstitutionally vague.
The Majority Opinion was written by Justice Clarence Thomas, who stated that the Court has only ever invalidated two kinds of criminal law as ‘void for vagueness:’ (1) laws that define criminal offenses, and (2) laws that fix permissible sentences for criminal offenses. As to the second category, the Court explained that a statute must “define the criminal offense with sufficient definiteness so that ordinary people can understand what conduct is prohibited, and in a manner that does not encourage arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement.” The Court then went on to state that “unlike the ACCA, 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.”
Thus, in interpreting the Sentencing Guidelines as advisory only and not as a sentence-fixing statute, the Court held that the guidelines cannot be subject to a vagueness challenge under the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court rejected Beckles’ challenge and affirmed the judgment of the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals.