Supreme Court rules sentencing guidelines not subject to vagueness challenges News
Supreme Court rules sentencing guidelines not subject to vagueness challenges

The US Supreme Court [official website] ruled [opinion, PDF] Monday that the US Sentencing Guidelines (USSG) [text] are not subject to challenges under the void-for-vagueness doctrine. The focus in Beckles v. United States [SCOTUSblog materials] was on §4B1.2 of the USSG, which includes the residual definition of “crime of violence.” The case came 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 argued that because the residual clause in the USSG contains the exact same wording, it is equally vague and thus should have been ruled unconstitutional. The court stated that the void-for-vagueness doctrine requires laws that fix permissible sentencing ranges to do so with “sufficient clarity,” which the residual clause of ACCA did not do in Johnson. However, the court held that the USSG “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.” Thus, the USSG, including the residual clause, is not subject to the void-for-vagueness doctrine. The Court went on to clarify that this does not immunize the USSG from constitutional scrutiny, as well as stating that the decision does not cast doubt on the other factors judges must consider when determining an appropriate sentence.

Various aspects of the sentencing structure in the US criminal justice system have been at issue recently. Last week the Supreme Court heard oral arguments [JURIST report] in Dean v. United States [SCOTUSblog materials]. The court must determine whether its decision in Pepper v. United States [opinion, PDF] limits the discretion of district courts in considering mandatory consecutive sentences for defendants convicted of firearms offenses under 18 USC § 924(C) [text]. 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.