Gun-Toting Felon Fumbles Vagueness Challenge

WASHINGTON (CN) – The Supreme Court was mostly unanimous Monday in rejecting the appeal of a man given 30 years in prison after he was convicted of being a felon in possession of a firearm.

When Travis Beckles moved to vacate that punishment, he argued that his conviction for unlawful possession of a firearm was not a “crime of violence,” and therefore that he did not qualify as a career offender under the federal sentencing guidelines.

Beckles called the “crime of violence” definition unconstitutionally vague, but the high court ruled Monday “that the advisory guidelines are not subject to vagueness challenges under the due process clause.”

“Because they merely guide the district courts’ discretion, the guidelines are not amenable to a vagueness challenge,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts as well as Justices Anthony Kennedy, Stephen Breyer and Samuel Alito.

“As discussed above, the system of purely discretionary sentencing that predated the guidelines was constitutionally permissible,” Thomas added. “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. The advisory guidelines also do not implicate the twin concerns underlying vagueness doctrine — providing notice and preventing arbitrary enforcement. As to notice, even perfectly clear guidelines could not provide notice to a person who seeks to regulate his conduct so as to avoid particular penalties within the statutory range. That is because even if a person behaves so as to avoid an enhanced sentence under the career-offender guideline, the sentencing court retains discretion to impose the enhanced sentence.”

Emphasizing that the guidelines are not immune from constitutional scrutiny, Thomas noted precedent about how a “retrospective increase in the guidelines range applicable to a defendant” violates the ex post facto clause.

Justice Elena Kagan did not take part in the consideration or decision of the case. Justice Kennedy expounded upon the vagueness inquiry in a concurring opinion.

“That something is vague as a general matter, however, does not necessarily mean that it is vague within the well-established legal meaning of that term,” he wrote. “And it seems most unlikely that the definitional structure used to explain vagueness in the context of fair warning to a transgressor, or of preventing arbitrary enforcement, is, by automatic transference, applicable to the subject of sentencing where judicial discretion is involved as distinct from a statutory command.”

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor each authored opinions concurring in the judgment.

At the time of his 2007 conviction for possessing a sawed-off shotgun as a felon, Ginsburg noted, Section 922(g)(1) of Title 18 expressly designated his offense of conviction a “crime of violence.”

Calling that that commentary authoritative, Ginsburg said “Beckles therefore cannot, and indeed does not, claim that §4B1.2(a) was vague as applied to him.”

“And because his conduct was ‘clearly proscribed,’ he also ‘cannot complain of the vagueness of the [guideline] as applied to the conduct of others,’” the opinion continues. “I would accordingly defer any more encompassing ruling until a case we have agreed to take up requires one.”

Sotomayor took issue with the majority’s announcement “that the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines as a whole are immune from vagueness challenges,” calling this holding “not only unnecessary, but also deeply unsound.”

“It follows from the central role that the guidelines play at sentencing that they should be susceptible to vagueness challenges under the due process clause,” Sotomayor wrote.

“Contrary to the majority’s conclusion, an inscrutably vague guideline implicates both of the concerns animating the prohibition on vagueness,” she continued.