United States v. LaBonte

PETITIONER: United States
RESPONDENT: LaBonte
LOCATION: Attorney General Office

DOCKET NO.: 95-1726
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit

CITATION: 520 US 751 (1997)
ARGUED: Jan 07, 1997
DECIDED: May 27, 1997

ADVOCATES:
David N. Yellen - Argued the cause for the respondents
Michael Dreeben - for petitioner
Michael R. Dreeben - Department of Justice, argued the cause for the petitioner

Facts of the case

28 USC section 994(h) directs the United States Sentencing Commission to "assure" that its Sentencing Guidelines specify a prison sentence "at or near the maximum term authorized for categories of" adult offenders who commit their third felony drug offense or violent crime. Initially, the Guidelines failed to delineate whether the basic statutory maximum persons convicted of a particular offense or the enhanced penalty for career offenders convicted of that same offense should be applied. After the District Court used and the Court of Appeals affirmed the enhanced sentence for sentencing George LaBonte, Alfred Lawrence Hunnewell, and Stephen Dyer, who qualified as career criminals, the Commission adopted Amendment 506, which precludes the consideration of statutory sentence enhancements. When the District Court split over whether reduce LaBonte, Hunnewell, and Dyer's sentences, the Court of Appeals found that Amendment 506 was a reasonable implementation of section 994(h)'s directive.

Question

Did Congress intend by "maximum term authorized" in 28 USC section 994(h) the maximum term available for the offense of conviction including any applicable statutory sentencing enhancements?

Media for United States v. LaBonte

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 07, 1997 in United States v. LaBonte

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - May 27, 1997 in United States v. LaBonte

The opinion of the Court in No. 95-1726, United States against LaBonte, will be announced by Justice Thomas.

This case comes to us on a writ of certiorari to the Court of Appeals for the First Circuit.

At the bottom, this case involves what to -- how do you sentence an individual who has committed one or two crimes but not a series of crimes under the federal statute.

The Title 28 U.S.C. Section 994(h) directs the United States Sentencing Commission to “assure” that its sentencing guidelines specify a prison sentence "at or near the maximum term authorized for categories of" adult offenders who commit their third felony drug offense or third violent crime.

The Commission sought to implement this directive in its Career Offender Guideline.

That Guideline initially failed to designate which "maximum term" a sentencing court was to use when federal law establishes a basic statutory maximum for persons convicted of a particular offense, but also provides an enhanced penalty -- penalty for career offenders convicted of that same offense.

In this case, the District Court used such an enhancement in sentencing the respondents, each of whom was convicted of a federal -- or of federal drug felonies and qualified as a career offender under the Career Offender Guideline.

After the First Circuit affirmed the convictions and sentences, the Commission adopted Amendment 506, which altered the Career Offender Guideline's commentary to preclude consideration of the statutory sentence enhancements.

One District Judge found that the -- that Amendment 506 was contrary to Section 994(h) and refused to reduce the sentences of respondents Dyer and Hunnewell, but another judge of the same court upheld the amendment and reduced respondent LaBonte's sentence.

The First Circuit consolidated the ensuing appeals and held that the Career Offender Guideline, as construed under Amendment 506, was a reasonable implementation of Section 994(h)'s directive.

In an opinion filed with the clerk today, we reversed.

Amendment 506 is inconsistent with Section 994(h)'s plain and unambiguous language.

Assuming that Congress said what it meant in drafting Section 994(h), and giving the words used their “ordinary meaning,” the phrase “maximum term authorized” must be read to include all applicable statutory sentencing enhancements.

Respondents' contrary argument that the phrase refers only to the highest penalty authorized by the offense of conviction, excluding any enhancements, has no support in the text of the statute.

Their assertion that Section 994(h) is ambiguous is based on a strained construction of the phrase “categories of defendants.”

Similarly, we find no ambiguity in the phrase “at or near” the maximum sentence authorized.

Although the phrase “at or near” unquestionably permits a certain degree of flexibility for upward and downward departure and adjustments.

It does not license the Commission to select as the relevant maximum term a sentence that is different from the congressionally authorized maximum term.

Justice Breyer has filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justices Stevens and Ginsburg have joined.