Justices Nix Retroactive Sentencing Guidelines

     (CN) – Defendants cannot be sentenced under stricter federal guidelines than the ones recommended when they committed their crimes, the Supreme Court ruled Monday in a 5-4 decision.
     The justices reversed the 7th Circuit’s dismissal of an appeal by Marvin Peugh, who was convicted of five counts of bank fraud and sentenced to 70 months in prison. He argued that his sentence violated the Constitution because it was based on 2009 sentencing guidelines, though he committed the crimes in 1999 and 2000.
     Had he been sentenced under 1998 guidelines, his range would have been 30 to 37 months in prison instead of the 70 to 87 months recommended in 2009, the high court noted.
     Peugh argued that this application of stricter guidelines violated the Constitution’s ex post facto clause – from the Latin “after the fact” – which bars the passage of laws that impose a harsher punishment than the one in effect when the crime was committed.
     Five justices agreed, reversing the lower court’s dismissal of the case.
     “A retrospective increase in the Guidelines range applicable to a defendant creates a sufficient risk of a higher sentence to constitute an ex post facto violation,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote for the majority.
     The high court said its “most relevant” prior decision was Miller v. Florida. In that 1987 ruling, the Supreme Court found an ex post facto violation when a defendant received a higher sentence under Florida’s new sentencing guidelines than the one recommended when he committed the crime.
     Sotomayor acknowledged that “there are relevant differences between Florida’s sentencing scheme and the current federal sentencing regime,” but said “these differences are not dispositive.”
     “Although the federal system’s procedural rules establish gentler checks on the sentencing court’s discretion than Florida’s did, they nevertheless impose a series of requirements on sentencing courts that cabin the exercise of that discretion,” she wrote. “Common sense indicates that in general, this system will steer district courts to more within-Guidelines sentences.”
     The court rejected the government’s claim that no constitutional violation occurred because the guidelines are no longer binding and thus can’t be considered a “law” within the meaning of the ex post facto clause.
     “That a district court may ultimately sentence a given defendant outside the guidelines range does not deprive the guidelines of force as the framework for sentencing,” Sotomayor wrote.
     “Our holding today is consistent with basic principles of fairness that animate the ex post facto clause.”
     Joining the majority opinion were Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Anthony Kennedy.
     Justice Clarence Thomas filed a dissenting opinion, joined in part by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito.
     “The Constitution prohibits Congress from passing ex post facto laws,” Thomas wrote. “The retroactive application of the 2009 Guidelines did not alter the punishment affixed to petitioner’s crime and does not violate this proscription.”
     He said the reasons were two-fold: “First, the Guidelines do not constrain the discretion of district courts and, thus, have no legal effect on a defendant’s sentence. Second, to the extent that the amended Guidelines create a risk that a defendant might receive a harsher punishment, that risk results from the Guidelines’ persuasive force, not any legal effect.” (Emphasis in original.)
     Justice Alito filed a one-paragraph dissent, joined by Justice Scalia.

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