United States v. LaBonte
520 U.S. 751 (1997)

Annotate this Case

OCTOBER TERM, 1996

Syllabus

UNITED STATES v. LABONTE ET AL.

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FIRST CIRCUIT

No. 95-1726. Argued January 7, 1997-Decided May 27,1997

Title 28 U. S. C. § 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. The Commission sought to implement this directive in its "Career Offender Guideline," Guidelines Manual §4Bl.l. That Guideline initially failed to designate which "maximum term" a sentencing court should use when federal law establishes a basic statutory maximum for persons convicted of a particular offense, but also provides an enhanced penalty for career offenders convicted of that same offense. The District Court used such an enhancement in sentencing respondents, each of whom was convicted of federal drug felonies and qualified as a career offender under § 4Bl.l. Mter the First Circuit affirmed the convictions and sentences, the Commission adopted Amendment 506, which, inter alia, altered § 4Bl.1's commentary to preclude consideration of statutory sentence enhancements. One District Court Judge found that Amendment 506 was contrary to § 994(h) and refused to reduce the sentences of respondents Dyer and Hunnewell, but another such judge upheld the amendment and reduced respondent LaBonte's prison term. The First Circuit consolidated the ensuing appeals and held that § 4Bl.1, as construed under Amendment 506, was a reasonable implementation of § 994(h)'s directive.

Held: Amendment 506 is inconsistent with § 994(h)'s plain and unambiguous language and therefore must give way. Stinson v. United States, 508 U. S. 36, 38. Assuming that Congress said what it meant in drafting § 994(h), and giving the words used their "ordinary meaning," Moskal v. United States, 498 U. S. 103, 108, 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 little merit. Their assertion that § 994(h) is ambiguous is based, at least in part, on a strained and flawed construction of the phrase "categories of defendants." Their claim that Amendment 506 satisfies Congress' mandate to sentence repeat offenders "at or near" the maximum sentence authorized is also rejected. Although the phrase "at or near" unquestionably permits a certain degree


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of flexibility for upward and downward departures 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. Finally, this Court is unmoved by respondents' heavy reliance on the Commission's inapposite assertions that Amendment 506 avoids unwarranted double counting of prior offenses and eliminates unwarranted disparity associated with variations in the exercise of prosecutorial discretion in seeking enhanced penalties. pp. 757-762.

70 F.3d 1396, reversed and remanded.

THOMAS, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C. J., and O'CONNOR, SCALIA, KENNEDY, and SOUTER, JJ., joined. BREYER, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which STEVENS and GINSBURG, JJ., joined, post, p. 762.

Deputy Solicitor General Dreeben argued the cause for the United States. With him on the briefs were Acting Solicitor General Dellinger, Acting Assistant Attorney General Keeney, Malcolm L. Stewart, and J. Douglas Wilson.

David N. Yellen argued the cause for respondents. With him on the brief were John A. Giraldo, by appointment of the Court, 518 U. S. 1037, Peter Goldberger, by appointment of the Court, 518 U. S. 1037, and Michael C. Bourbeau, by appointment of the Court, 518 U. S. 1037.*

JUSTICE THOMAS delivered the opinion of the Court.

In 28 U. S. C. § 994(h), Congress directed the United States Sentencing Commission (Commission) to "assure" that the 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. We are asked to decide whether, by "maximum term authorized," Congress meant (1) the maximum term available for the offense of conviction including any applicable

* David Duncan, Lisa B. Kemler, and David M. Zlotnick filed a brief for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers et al. as amici curiae urging affirmance.


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Full Text of Opinion

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