The provision of the federal sentencing statute that makes the United States Sentencing Guidelines mandatory, 18 U.S.C.S. § 3553(b)(1), is incompatible with the United States Supreme Court's constitutional holding that the Sixth Amendment requires juries, not judges, to find facts relevant to sentencing. This provision must be severed and excised, as must one other statutory section, 18 U.S.C.S. § 3742(e), which depends upon the Guidelines' mandatory nature. So modified, the Federal Sentencing Act, Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, as amended, 18 U.S.C.S. § 3551 et seq., 28 U.S.C.S. § 991 et seq., makes the Guidelines effectively advisory. It requires a sentencing court to consider Guidelines ranges, 18 U.S.C.S. § 3553(a)(4), but it permits the court to tailor the sentence in light of other statutory concerns as well, § 3553(a).
In separate cases, two defendants were convicted of charges relating to cocaine distribution. The first defendant's sentence was increased under the Guidelines by more than eight years based, inter alia, on the trial judge's finding that defendant possessed a greater quantity of drugs than was found by the jury. In the second defendant's case, the trial judge made findings that would have added ten years to defendant's sentence, but the judge declined to apply the Guidelines' enhancement provisions. The first defendant's sentence under the United States Sentencing Guidelines was reversed by the United States Court of Appeals. The government appealed the second defendant's sentence to the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. The Supreme Court of the United States granted certiorari review in both cases. In the first case, the sentence was affirmed and remanded. In the second case, the judgment was vacated and remanded for resentencing under the system set out by the Supreme Court.
Did the application of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines violate the Sixth Amendment?
Under the Sixth Amendment, any fact other than a prior conviction that was necessary to support a sentence exceeding the maximum authorized by the facts established by a plea of guilty or a jury verdict had to be admitted by a defendant or proved to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. Therefore, 18 U.S.C.S. §§ 3553(b)(1) and 3742(e) were unconstitutional. The Guidelines were effectively advisory rather than mandatory; district courts were required to take the Guidelines into account but were not bound to apply them. Review of sentencing decisions was to be subject to an unreasonableness standard. The ruling was applicable to all cases on direct review.