When Travis Beckles surrendered his sawed-off shotgun to a Miami detective, he almost certainly didn’t expect to spark 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 felony count of being 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’s possession of the shotgun constituted a “crime of violence,” which, per the USSG, also requires a sentence enhancement. The court ultimately sentenced Beckles to 30 years in prison.
Beckles brought an appeal, Beckles v. U.S., in which he argued that his sentence was wrongly enhanced. He asserted 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 that case, 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 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 made essentially the same argument, 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’s additional penalties.)
His argument could have major consequences for the way federal agencies operate.