As the questions surrounding the applicability of Johnson swirl, the Supreme Court granted a new case, Beckles v. United States, that will likely answer whether the residual clause is vague as it is applied to the Career Offender Guideline. This is an interesting twist because appellate courts around the country have already remanded several cases finding that the residual clause within the career offender guideline, U.S.S.G. 4B1.1 and 4B1.2, is constitutionally vague under Johnson. The decision will have widespread impact, but puts a number of cases on hold until the Court finally determines whether the application of the vagueness doctrine applies to the sentencing guidelines.
Beckles raises a number of questions. Specifically, Beckles asks the Court to decide:
(1) Whether Johnson v. United States applies retroactively to collateral cases challenging federal sentences enhanced under the residual clause in United States Sentencing Guidelines (U.S.S.G.) § 4B1.2(a)(2) (defining “crime of violence”); (2) whether Johnson’s constitutional holding applies to the residual clause in U.S.S.G. § 4B1.2(a)(2), thereby rendering challenges to sentences enhanced under it cognizable on collateral review; and (3) whether mere possession of a sawed-off shotgun, an offense listed as a “crime of violence” only in commentary to U.S.S.G. § 4B1.2, remains a “crime of violence” after Johnson.
Obviously, questions 1 and 2 overlap in many respects. Question 1 will definitevly sort out whether individuals sentenced as career offenders under the residual clause in the past can benefit from the Johnson holding. Questions 2 will answer the broader question of whether Johnson applies to 4B1.2 at all. Question 3 deals with the narrow question of whether mere possession of a sawed-off shotgun is a crime violence if Johnson is not applicable.
The specific difference in application of Johnson to the guidelines is that the guidelines are not laws enacted by Congress. Instead, the United States Sentencing Commission, created through an act of Congress, issues guidelines with oversight. The Armed Career Criminal Act, on the other hand, is a statute enacted by Congress directly. Thus, the question remains 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.
Even though the Supreme Court has accepted Cert on this issue, some Courts still believe Johnson is applicable. In fact, the District of Nebraska issued an opinion holding Johnson is retroactively applicable to a guideline case after Beckles was granted.
This is an immensely important decision for many individuals sentenced as career offenders in federal prisons around the country. It is hard to imagine the Supreme Court finding that Johnson is not applicable in this context. Hopefully, the Supreme Court clarifies the issue regarding the applicability of constitutional interpretation to the Sentencing Guidelines, which, although advisory, have a tremendous impact on sentences handed down by courts everyday.