Thursday, December 1, 2016

Beckles Argument Creats New Hope for Federal Relief

Monday's Supreme Court Argument on Beckles Completed; Early 2017 Decision Likely


            The U.S. Supreme Court (SC) held its long-awaited argument in Beckles v. US this past Monday, and the results were positive. Beckles was questioning the constitutionality of the residual clause in the career offender section 4B1.2 of the guidelines after the Johnson case found an identically worded residual clause in the ACCA statute unconstitutionally vague.

             Both the petitioner and government attorneys agreed that a favorable ruling on the guidelines vagueness issue would retroactive on collateral review. Counsel for Beckles argued that the guidelines language at issue was virtually identical to that of the ACCA residual clause, which the Johnson case  found vague and unenforceable, and implied that it was up to the SC to interpret the language in a consistent fashion.

            Defense counsel then concentrated on the retroactivity argument (essential to prisoners seeking relief), citing Welch v. U.S., Montgomery v. Louisiana, and Miller v. Alabama, which all  were found to be retroactive. The government's attorney then argued that if the court found guideline vagueness in this case, that it was merely procedural , and hence, not retroactive, but this argument was met with some skepticism by some of the justices, who were concerned that a finding on the issue "vagueness" might put all of the Guidelines rules in jeopardy. The government then argued that since it conceded the issue of retroactivity, that the vagueness issue could be put aside for now.

            The government's argument was: "no circuit has actually ruled on retroactivity...(but) have ruled on vagueness.  All except ...the Eleventh have either said vagueness applies to the Guidelines and the residual clause falls, (or) they have said we accept the government's concession that vagueness applies."

            The government conceded that many district courts and appellate courts have already indicated their view on the subject and have already started granting relief to petitioners, essentially pushing the SC in the direction of retroactivity in future cases concerning the 4B1.2 vagueness issue.       

            The court-appointed amicus counsel argued that since the guidelines system of discretionary sentencing, despite its argument, was preferable, but he drew few questions, an indication that his argument was not well received by the justices.
            In summary, the retroactivity issue looks to be favorably decided, given the government's concession, and the justices appear to think that it is substantive rather than just procedural. It appears from the questions that Beckles will be a favorable decision, hopefully by an outright majority rather than a plurality, and may well open the door a little wider for even more vagueness challenges on Guidelines provisions that began with the Booker holding that the Guidelines were only advisory.