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Beckles v. United States: Supreme Court holds that sentencing guidelines may not be challenged on vagueness grounds

March 8, 2017

In a unanimous (7-0) decision, Beckles v. the United States, the U.S. Supreme Court held on Monday that defendants cannot challenge the sentencing guidelines on vagueness grounds because the guidelines, unlike statutes, are subject to a judge’s discretion.  The Court held that “the advisory guidelines do not fix the permissible range of sentences” and, “[t]o the contrary, they merely guide the exercise of a court’s discretion in choosing an appropriate sentence within the statutory range.”

The Court held that because the guidelines are merely weighed along with other sentencing factors, there is no danger of arbitrary enforcement.

Beckles argued that possession of a sawed-off shotgun is not a violent crime that warrants a higher sentence under the residual clause of the guidelines.  In 2016, the Supreme Court struck down identical language in the Armed Career Criminal Act as unconstitutionally vague.  The Court declined to strike down the identical language in the guidelines and affirmed the Eleventh Circuit’s ruling.

The Supreme Court’s ruling affirms trial court judges’ broad discretion in sentencing.  Such discretion is not without limits, however.  For example, in Peugh v. United States, the Court found it unconstitutional for judges to retroactively apply guidelines more severe than the ones in place during a sentencing.

Chris Hampton practices law with Nexsen Pruet’s Governmental Investigations and  White Collar Criminal Defense team. The team is led by Billy Wilkins, former Chief Judge of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals and Mark Moore, a former state and federal prosecutor; the team also includes former federal prosecutors Dan Boyce & James Galyean, who provide advice and counsel to business leaders and individuals who find themselves the target of governmental (both federal and state) criminal and civil investigations.