Beckles v. United States

PETITIONER: Travis Beckles
RESPONDENT: United States
LOCATION: U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit

DOCKET NO.: 15-8544
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit

GRANTED: Jun 27, 2016
ARGUED: Nov 28, 2016

Janice L. Bergmann - for petitioner
Michael R. Dreeben - for respondent
Adam K. Mortara - for Court-appointed amicus curiae

Facts of the case

On April 11, 2007, Travis Beckles was arrested because a sawed-off shotgun was located in his residence, and he had previous felony convictions, mostly for drug possession and sales. Beckles was convicted, and during the sentencing phase of his trial, the district court determined that Beckles was an armed career criminal under the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) who had been in possession of a firearm and was therefore subject to sentencing enhancement under the Sentencing Guidelines. 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 Beckles’ 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 because possession of a sawed-off shotgun was a “crime of violence.” 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.


  1. Because the residual clause defining a “crime of violence” in the Sentencing Guidelines is identical to the one that the Supreme Court held unconstitutional in Johnson v. United States, does that ruling apply retroactively to sentences imposed under the Sentencing Guidelines?
  2. Does possession of a sawed-off shotgun constitute a “crime of violence” under the Sentencing Guidelines?

Media for Beckles v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - November 28, 2016 in Beckles v. United States

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

We will hear argument this morning in Case 15-8544, Beckles v. United States. Ms. Bergmann.

Janice L. Bergmann:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court: On average, attaching the "career offender" label to a Federal defendant both doubles his sentence and increases it by seven years.

At the time Petitioner was sentenced, a defendant could qualify as a career offender if one or more of his predicate offenses fell within the residual clause of the career offender guideline, and yet all now agree that the residual clause is so unintelligible that it is impossible to discern its meaning. Petitioner here submits three things: First, that invoking a shapeless -- so shapeless a provision to enhance someone's sentence in such a significant way does not comport with due process. Second, a ruling that the career offender residual clause is void for vagueness is substantive and, therefore, has retroactive effect in Petitioner's case. And third, that voiding the residual clause also invalidates the Guidelines commentary that identified Petitioner's offense as a crime of violence. As such, Petitioner is entitled to a resentencing without the career offender enhancement.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

You would agree, would you not, that, if the commentary counts, if it counts, then there's nothing imprecise about possessing a sawed-off shotgun; right?

Janice L. Bergmann:

Yes, Your Honor.

I agree that there is nothing imprecise about possession of a sawed-off shotgun.

Where the constitutional concerns come into play with the commentary is actually at the point where the Commission was interpreting the residual clause in order to identify the possession of a shotgun offense as falling within the residual clause. And the reason why that violates due process in part is because the Commission was attempting to clarify a provision that can't be clarified.

The Court has held in Johnson that the residual clause --

Anthony M. Kennedy:

But the -- but suppose there were a statute -- and this is a -- I don't mean to interrupt, but this is part of Justice Ginsburg's question. Suppose there were a statute in Johnson, and it read just like the residual clause, that -- that an example of a dangerous offense is -- or an offense which creates a serious risk is the possession of a sawed-off shotgun.

That was in the statute.

Janice L. Bergmann:

Well, Your Honor, the --

Anthony M. Kennedy:

Would the statute then be valid?

Janice L. Bergmann:

The -- Your Honor, the --

Anthony M. Kennedy:

In -- in the shotgun case.

Janice L. Bergmann:

In the statute itself --

Anthony M. Kennedy:

In the shotgun case.

Janice L. Bergmann:

If the statute itself included that language, yes, Your Honor.

But the -- the commentary --

Anthony M. Kennedy:

Yes, it would be valid.

Janice L. Bergmann:

If the -- if the possession of a sawed-off shotgun was listed in the statute.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

Well, you didn't answer Justice Ginsburg's question.

Why can't the Sentencing Commission, the agency, do that?

Janice L. Bergmann:

Well, Your Honor, because when the Sentencing Commission was interpreting -- when the Sentencing Commission created the commentary, it was interpreting the language of the residual clause, and the --

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

Do we know that for sure?

Janice L. Bergmann:

Well, yes, Your Honor, we know it in several ways. One, the sawed-off shotgun offense can only fall within the residual clause because the text of the Guidelines state three exclusive definitions for the term "crime of violence." Possession of a sawed-off shotgun does not fall within the first definition because there's no element of force.

It is not one of the four enumerated offenses.

Because the Guidelines states forth these three exclusive definitions, the only definition it could fall within would be the residual clause. We also know it because when the Commission amended the commentary to include the possession of a sawed-off shotgun offense, the reasons for amendment stated that it was doing so based on lower court decisions concluding that possession of a sawed-off shotgun fell within the residual clause.

Samuel A. Alito, Jr.:

Well, what if the -- the Guidelines themselves said that the term "crime of violence" means, among other things, burglary of a dwelling, arson, extortion, involves use of explosives, involves possession of a sawed-off shotgun, or otherwise involves conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another? Would there be a vagueness problem then?

Janice L. Bergmann:

No, Your Honor, but that would be because the -- the offense would be in the text of the Guideline itself. And here the issue isn't just the vagueness, but it's also the -- the respect that the Court has to give to the agency's interpretation of a guideline. And with the commentary here, Your Honor, the -- the Commission was not interpreting the -- its own words -- I mean the text of the Guideline was not language that the Commission itself created.

It was not interpreting the enabling statute there.