The Holding That Career Offenders Should Be Waiting for: Beckles v. United States
Stephen A. Ortiz*
Defendants who are classified as career offenders and found guilty of a crime typically receive an enhanced sentence. U.S. Sentencing Commission, Guidelines Manual, § 4B1.1 (Nov. 1, 2015), http://www.ussc.gov/sites/default/files/pdf/guidelines-manual/2015/GLMFull.pdf. The United States Sentencing Guidelines (USSG) state:
A defendant is a career offender if (1) the defendant was at least eighteen years old at the time the defendant committed the instant offence of conviction; (2) the instant offense of conviction is a felony that is either a crime of violence or a controlled substance offence; and (3) the defendant has at least two prior felony convictions of either a crime of violence or a controlled substance offense. Id. § 4B1.1(a).
Under this definition, the term “crime of violence” has been argued to be vague and therefore unconstitutional. Beckles v. United States, 616 F. App’x 415 (11th Cir. 2015), cert. granted, 136 S. Ct. 2510 (2016). After agreeing to hear a case that brings this issue to the forefront, the United States Supreme Court must now decide whether the term “crime of violence” is unconstitutionally vague. Kevin Daley, This Is One Of The Biggest Pending SCOTUS Cases You Haven’t Heard Of, Daily Caller (Aug. 23, 2016, 9:43 PM), http://dailycaller.com/2016/08/23/this-is-one-of-the-biggest-pending-scotus-case-you-havent-heard-of/.
This coming year, the Supreme Court will decide the case of Travis Beckles. Id. In 2007, Beckles, who had two prior felony drug convictions, was in possession of a sawed-off shotgun and thus convicted on one count of being a felon in possession of a firearm. Id. Due to his two prior convictions, the trial court classified Beckles as a “career offender” and therefore enhanced his sentence. Id. Furthermore, “[t]he court also ruled that Beckles’ possession of the shotgun constituted a ‘crime of violence,’ which, per the USSG, also requires a sentence enhancement,” ultimately resulting in “a 30-year prison term” for Beckles. Id. On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the trial court’s decision, concluding that the defendant was a career offender and thus, subject to an enhanced sentence. Beckles, 616 F. App’x 415, 415–16. On appeal, Beckles argued that “he was sentenced improperly as a career offender” and that “his conviction for unlawful possession of a sawed-off shotgun was no ‘crime of violence.’” Id. at 415. Furthermore, Beckles argued that the term “crime of violence” is unconstitutionally vague and therefore violates the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. Id. at 416.
As support for his argument, Beckles urges the Supreme Court to adopt the holding of Johnson v. United States. 135 S. Ct. 2551 (2015). In Johnson, the Court found that the residual clause under the Armed Career Criminal Act of 1984 was unconstitutionally vague. Id. The residual clause states “a felon in possession of a firearm faces more severe punishment if he has three or more previous convictions for a ‘violent felony.’” Id. at 2555. A violent felony is a “term defined to include any felony that ‘involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another.’” Id. (quoting 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(2)(B)). Beckles argued that the terms “violent felony” and “crime of violence” are equivalent phrases and therefore his enhanced sentence should be vacated. Daley, supra.
Although the holding in Johnson seems applicable, there is a significant difference between these cases. Bradley Henry, Johnson, Beckles, and Career Offenders: The Ongoing Saga of the Residual Clause, Henry Law (July 7, 2016), http://www.henrylawny.com/johnson-beckles-career-offenders-ongoing-saga-residual-clause/. In Johnson, the Armed Career Criminal Act of 1984 is a statute directly enacted by Congress and therefore subject to Supreme Court review. Id. On the other hand, the United States Sentencing Guidelines are not laws enacted by Congress. Id. The fact that Beckles was sentenced as a career offender who committed a “crime of violence” (based on the express language of the Sentencing Guidelines) raises the issue of “whether a constitutional vagueness challenge applicable to a statute in the United States Code applies equally to a guideline issued by the Sentencing Commission, which is not mandatory.” Id.
In Beckles, the government argues that those commentaries classifying Beckles offense as a “crime of violence” are “subject to Auer deference, and that the Supreme Court must respect their interpretation of the law.” Daley, supra. Auer deference is “a legal doctrine which requires a court to defer to an agency’s interpretation of its own rules and regulations as long as its interpretation is not ‘erroneous’ or ‘inconsistent with the regulation.’” Id. The government’s argument has been “regularly invoked by agencies to protect their various activities.” Id. Therefore, the Supreme Court has a difficult decision to make—one which could have great impact in various ways.
The impending Beckles decision will have an important consequence for “many individuals sentenced as career offenders in federal prisons around the country.” Henry, supra. Should the U.S. Supreme Court decide to apply the same decision in Johnson, many incarcerated career offenders will possibly have their sentences greatly reduced. Id. Additionally, the decision in Beckles “presents the Supreme Court the opportunity to revisit the Auer doctrine.” Daley, supra. Although many “opponents of Auer deference have gradually emerged on the high court in recent years,” the justices in Beckles could decide to refrain from making a decision on this issue. Id. It will be interesting to see the Supreme Court’s upcoming decision and the effect in regards to the Auer doctrine and the enhanced sentences for career offenders.
* Stephen A. Ortiz is a second-year law student at the University of Baltimore School of law, where he is a staff editor for Law Review. In addition, he serves as the Day Representative for the Black Law Student Association. In the summer of 2016, he interned for Judge Kevin M. Wilson at the Baltimore City District Court, and was the legal intern for A-K Real Estate Inc., in Washington, D.C