Braxton v. United States

RESPONDENT:United States
LOCATION:Clark County Jail

DOCKET NO.: 90-5358
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1990-1991)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

CITATION: 500 US 344 (1991)
ARGUED: Mar 18, 1991
DECIDED: May 28, 1991

Stephen J. Cribari – on behalf of the Petitioner
Stephen J. Marzen – on behalf of the Respondent

Facts of the case


Media for Braxton v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – March 18, 1991 in Braxton v. United States

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – May 28, 1991 in Braxton v. United States

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Court in No. 90-5358, Braxton against the United States will be announced by Justice Scalia

Antonin Scalia:

Four United States Marshals arrived at Thomas Braxton’s door with a warrant for his arrest.

They knocked but there was no answer, though they could hear somebody inside.

They got a key to the apartment, knocked again, unlocked the door, and finding it secured with a chain lock from the inside, kicked the door open.

As it opened, the gunshot was fired and a bullet lodged in the door just above the doorknob,that is the outside of the door.

The door slammed shut and the officers withdrew.

A moment later, they again kicked the door open.

Another shot was fired.

This too, lodging in the front of the door about five feet from the floor.

The officers again withdrew and the area was barricaded.

Braxton, who had fired the shots, eventually gave himself up and was charged in a three-count indictment with (1) an attempt to kill a deputy United States marshal, (2) assault on a deputy marshal, and (3) the use of a firearm during a crime of violence.

These were the facts presented by the government during the plea hearing.

Braxton agreed to those facts as the government presented them, and pleaded guilty to the last two charges, assault and firearm charges.

He did not, however, plead guilty to the attempted murder charge.

And his plea was not pursuant to any agreement with the government.

Nonetheless, at sentencing, the District Court sentenced Braxton in effect as though he had pleaded guilty to attempted murder.

Relying on a provision in the sentencing guidelines that allows the judge to sentence a defendant to an offense greater than the one to which he pleaded guilty, is the plea contains “a stipulation that specifically establishes a more serious offense than the offensive conviction.”

The Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed the conviction here and we granted certiorari.

In an opinion filed with the clerk today, we reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals.

While we have originally granted review in this case because of a split in the Circuits’ over the meaning of the word stipulation in the guideline provisions I quoted.

We have chosen not to resolve the case on that ground.

After we granted review, the sentencing commission began an amendment process that could lead to a clarification of the guideline on that point.

In our view, the commission is Congress’ chosen body for resolving splits in the interpretation of the guidelines, and we will differ to it here where we can resolve the case on another ground.

Even if an agreement to facts presented at a plea hearing constitutes a stipulation, we do not believe that the stipulation in this case specifically establishes which is what the guideline requires, specifically establishes that Braxton attempted to murder anyone.

At best, the stipulation is ambiguous if the bullets hit the door as described, that is lodged in the front of an inward-opening door, it would not be reasonable to conclude that Braxton was shooting at the marshals unless it was also stipulated that the marshals had entered the room.

That was not stipulated, and even if it was, that would still not show that Braxton had shot at the marshals with the intent of killing them.

Not only is there nothing from which that essential element could be inferred, but Braxton explicitly denied it at the hearing.

He claims to have intended only to frighten the martials and that is perfectly consistent with his stipulation.

To constitute a stipulation that specifically establishes an intent to kill something more than what we have here is required.

Accordingly, we reverse the judgment of the Fourth Circuit.

Antonin Scalia:

Our opinion is unanimous.