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On March 6, 2017, the Supreme Court decided Beckles v. United States. Travis Beckles, who had various felony convictions, was subsequently found guilty of being a convicted felon in possession of a firearm.  As a result he was subject to an enhanced sentence under the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines, which deemed him a “career offender” whose firearm possession offense constituted a “crime of violence.” Applying the enhancement, the district court sentenced Beckles to 360 months’ imprisonment. His conviction and sentence were affirmed on direct appeal, and the Supreme Court denied certiorari. Beckles then sought habeas relief from his enhanced sentence, arguing that his conviction for unlawful possession of a firearm was not a “crime of violence,” and that therefore he did not qualify as a “career offender” under the Guidelines. The district court denied his petition and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit again affirmed.

Beckles then petitioned the Supreme Court for certiorari and while his petition was pending the Court decided Johnson v. United States, which held that the residual clause part of the “crime of violence” definition in the Armed Career Criminal Act--the very same language that was applied to Beckles via the Sentencing Guidelines--was unconstitutionally vague. The Court, therefore, vacated the judgment in Beckles’ case and remanded to the Eleventh Circuit for further consideration in light of the Johnson decision. On remand, the Eleventh Circuit again affirmed Beckles’ enhanced sentence, reasoning that Johnson simply did not address the Sentencing Guidelines or related commentary. The Supreme Court then again granted certiorari, to “resolve a conflict among the Courts of Appeals on the question whether Johnson’s vagueness holding applies to the residual clause in [the Guidelines.]”

By a vote of 7-0, the Supreme Court affirmed the judgment of the Eleventh Circuit. Justice Thomas delivered the opinion of the Court, which held that “the advisory Sentencing Guidelines are not subject to a vagueness challenge under the Due Process Clause and that [the Guidelines’] residual clause is not void for vagueness.” Justice Thomas’s majority opinion was joined by the Chief Justice and Justices Kennedy, Breyer, and Alito. Justice Kennedy also filed a concurring opinion. Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor filed opinions concurring in the judgment. Justice Kagan took no part in the consideration or decision of this case.

To discuss the case, we have Carissa Hessick, who is the Anne Shea Ransdell and William Garland "Buck" Ransdell, Jr. Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of North Carolina School of Law.

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