Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Career Offender guideline unconstitutionally vague

Well, no. Sorry for the teaser headline. But the Sixth Circuit's rationale in United States v. Woodruff, 12-5240 sounds an awful lot like Justice Scalia's dissent in Sykes.

Mr. Woodruff had been deemed a Career Offender based in part on a Tennessee conviction for facilitation of the sale of cocaine. His trial attorney did not object to the pre-sentence report, nor did the attorney object at Mr. Woodruff's sentencing hearing. Mr. Woodruff appealed. Because of the lack of objections, Mr. Woodruff's claim regarding facilitation was reviewed for plain error.

The Sixth Circuit ruled Mr. Woodruff was right - facilitation of the sale of cocaine is NOT a "controlled substance offense" for purposes of the Career Offender guideline. However, it affirmed his sentence.

You see, the definition of "facilitation" is highly technical, and varies between circuits that have ruled on it (2nd and 8th), the Guidelines, Black's Law Dictionary, and other sources, so the district court's error could not have been "plain." "The state of the law was both uncertain and not obvious at the time of the decision."

Whether the guidelines are subject to the same Constitutional standards as statutes might be debatable. But Woodruff brings to mind these principles:

When an edict requires “wholly subjective judgments without statutory definitions, narrowing context, or settled legal meanings,” that edict is unconstitutionally vague. United States v. Williams, 553 U.S. 285, 306 (2008). Vagueness may invalidate a criminal law for violating the Fifth Amendment due process protections if it fails “to provide the kind of notice that will enable ordinary people to understand what conduct it prohibits” and/or if it authorizes or encourages “arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement.” City of Chicago v. Morales, 527 U.S. 41, 56 (1999)(citing Kolender v. Lawson, 461 U.S. 352, 357 (1983)). “A law fails to meet the requirements of the Due Process Clause if it is so vague and standardless that it leaves the public uncertain as to the conduct it prohibits.” Id. (quoting Giaccio v. Pennsylvania, 382 U.S. 399, 402-403 (1966)).

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