When Travis Beckles surrendered his sawed-off shotgun to a Miami detective, he almost certainly didn’t expect to instigate a chain of events that could lead to major changes in the way federal agencies operate.
When Beckles was taken into police custody in 2007, his girlfriend asked authorities to remove his gun from her residence; he directed officers to the weapon, concealed under his girlfriend’s mattress. He was later charged and convicted of one count of being a felon in possession of a firearm — Beckles had two prior felony drug convictions. Given these two convictions, the court determined that Beckles was a career offender. The U.S. Sentencing Guidelines (USSG), the set of rules which establish uniform sentencing practices across federal courts, instructed that his sentence should therefore be enhanced.
The court also ruled that Beckles’ possession of the shotgun constituted a “crime of violence,” which, per the USSG, also requires a sentence enhancement. The court ultimately sentenced Beckles to a 30-year prison term.
Beckles brought an appeal, Beckles v. U.S., in which he argued that his sentence was wrongly enhanced. He asserts that mere possession of a weapon does not constitute a “crime of violence,” and that his sentence enhancement should therefore be vacated. His appeal was rejected by the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear his case in late June.
His argument was bolstered when the Supreme Court issued it’s ruling last year in Johnson v. U.S. In Johnson the Court found that the phrase “violent felony” — the functional equivalent of the phrase “crime of violence” — as it appears in the Armed Career Criminal Act (ACCA) was unconstitutionally vague. A seven justice majority led by the late Justice Antonin Scalia reasoned by a due process analysis that the phrase, referred to as the “residual clause,” is poorly defined and leads to arbitrary and capricious application, in violation of the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause.
Beckles makes essentially the same argument as Johnson, arguing that the phrase “crime of violence” in the USSG is as vague as the residual clause of the ACCA, and should therefore be struck down (which, by extension, would vacate Beckles’ additional penalties.)
His argument could have major consequences for the way federal agencies operate.
Strictly speaking, the USSG does not define possession of a sawed-off shotgun as a “crime of violence.” Instead, commentaries on the guidelines provided by the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC) advise that possessing such a weapon should be considered a “crime of violence.” The government argues that those commentaries are subject to Auer deference, and that the Supreme Court must respect their interpretation of the law.
Auer deference is a legal doctrine which requires a court to defer to an agency’s interpretation of its own rules and regulations as long as its interpretation is not “erroneous” or “inconsistent with the regulation.” In Beckles, the government argues that the USSC commentaries are simply the agency’s interpretation of its own regulation (being the guidelines), and that the Court must defer to the USSC.
The Auer doctrine looms large in the administrative law scene. The doctrine is regularly invoked by agencies to protect their various activities. The U.S. Department of Labor invoked Auer deference when it announced that mortgage-loan officers were entitled to overtime. The Environmental Protection Agency did the same in requiring companies to obtain permits for water runoff from ditches running parallel to logging roads. It is difficult to overstate how much federal activity is protected by the Auer doctrine.
The Beckles case presents the Supreme Court the opportunity to revisit the Auer doctrine. Though it’s entirely possible the justices may sidestep the issue, opponents of Auer deference have gradually emerged on the high court in recent years. Scalia, the author of the Auer doctrine and a champion of judicial deference, made a thorough case for overturning the practice in 2013 in Decker v. Northwest Environmental Defense Center. Chief Justice John Roberts, and Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito are also likely to share Scalia’s sympathies. (RELATED: Exclusive: Puerto Rico Is Full Of ‘Open Dumps’ Ripe For Spreading Zika, And EPA’s Ignoring Them)
Furthermore, as Andrew Hessick notes in the Yale Journal on Regulations, the case presents exactly the fact posture critics of agency deference often complain about. “The Commission issued a vague guideline through notice and comment and then set its meaning through an interpretation not subject to those procedures,” Hessick writes. “Further, although they must be the product of notice and comment, the sentencing guidelines are not subject to judicial review when they are promulgated.”
In other words, the fact pattern presented in this case is exactly the sort of thing critics of Auer deference complain about. Should the Supreme Court feel so bold, Travis Beckles’ sawed-off shotgun might end up dealing a double-barrel blast to federal agency power.
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