December 21, 2016
On November 28, 2016, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Beckles v. United States. Travis Beckles, who had previous felony convictions (mostly for drug possession and sales), was an armed career criminal under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) and was therefore convicted in district court and subject to sentencing enhancement under the Sentencing Guidelines after being found in possession of a firearm. Pursuant to the Sentencing Guidelines, Beckles was eligible for a sentence range from 360 months to life imprisonment, and the court sentenced him to 360 months in prison, five months of supervised release, and a $5,000 fine. Beckles appealed and argued that the Sentencing Guidelines imposed an unreasonable sentence, that his prior convictions did not qualify as “violent felonies” subject to sentencing enhancement under ACCA, and that possession of a sawed-off shotgun was not a “crime of violence” subject to sentencing enhancement under the Sentencing Guidelines. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed his conviction and sentence.
The U.S. Supreme Court vacated the appellate court’s decision and remanded the case for reconsideration in light of Johnson v. United States, which determined that the residual clause of ACCA was unconstitutional. On remand, the appellate court again upheld Beckles’ conviction and sentence. The appellate court also held that the Johnson decision did not affect this case because Beckles was not sentenced under the residual clause of ACCA but rather under express language from the Sentencing Guidelines about sentencing enhancements for crimes of violence.
The three questions now before the Supreme Court are: (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.
To discuss the case, we have Carissa Byrne 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.