Monday, March 06, 2017

The Beckles disappointment

The Beckles decision issued today, and it did not go well. If you were not in the trenches after Johnson, if you did not file hundreds of 2255 petitions raising claims based on Beckles, it will be difficult to understand the scale of this disappointment. Worse, if you are one of the tens of thousands of federal prisoners sentenced under the career offender guideline and awaiting the outcome of this case, the decision is devastating.

In short, Beckles holds that the advisory sentencing guidelines are not susceptible to a due process vagueness challenge. They are discretionary, you see, so the vagueness doctrine's twin emphasis on providing notice and preventing arbitrary enforcement do not apply. If a judge can sentence anyone to any sentence within the statutory range, then why would someone need notice of the guidelines? This holding will create some cognitive dissonance for federal defenders everywhere, for whom the question of whether a client is a career offender determines the entire course of any given representation, especially the plea process. But that is behind us for now.

So what is left? First, it is important to note that this opinion is limited to the discretionary guidelines, not the pre-Booker mandatory guidelines. Any mandatory guidelines cases should still be alive. Second, the decision states that even though a vagueness challenge under the due process clause must fail, the Court has nevertheless recognized that, under the Eighth Amendment, "a district court’s reliance on a vague sentencing factor in a capital case, even indirectly, can taint the sentence." Should Beckles petitioners raise Eighth Amendment claims? Are there other appeal issues remaining?

The phone calls from disappointed clients will begin today, but the process of digesting this decision will continue for some time.

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