Supreme Court rules in dispute over federal sentencing guidelines

The Supreme Court ruled that a businessman was entitled to be sentenced under a version of sentencing guidelines in effect at the time he committed bank fraud, not the guidelines later enacted.

An Illinois businessman convicted of bank fraud won an opportunity to receive a lighter sentence on Monday as the US Supreme Court ruled that his 70-month prison term violated the Constitution’s ban on ex post facto laws.

The high court ruled that the businessman, Marvin Peugh, was entitled to be sentenced under a version of the sentencing guidelines in effect at the time he committed his crimes, not the more punitive guidelines later enacted.

In a 5-to-4 decision, the high court said a federal judge’s reliance on the tougher guidelines in fashioning Mr. Peugh’s sentence violated the concept of “fundamental justice.”

The ban on ex post facto laws is designed to promote basic fairness by preventing the government from changing the law midway through a criminal case when the new law will result in more severe punishment.

The issue in Marvin Peugh v. US was whether the ban on ex post facto laws should apply beyond statutes to include any new, tougher version of the sentencing guidelines.  

“The Ex Post Facto Clause forbids the [government] to enhance the measure of punishment by altering the substantive ‘formula’ used to calculate the applicable sentencing range,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in the majority opinion.

“That is precisely what the amended guidelines did here,” she said. “Doing so created a ‘significant risk’ of a higher sentence for Peugh, and offended one of the principal interests that the Ex Post Facto Clause was designed to serve, fundamental justice.”

In a dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas said the sentencing guidelines may influence a judge’s sentencing decision but that the final sentence is discretionary. The Constitution bars ex post facto laws that increase punishment, not the enactment of discretionary guidelines that may result in a harsher sentence, he said.

“It is difficult to see how an advisory Guideline, designed to lead courts to impose sentences more in line with fixed statutory objectives, could ever constitute an ex post facto violation. But that is exactly what the Court concludes,” Thomas wrote.

“The statutory range in effect at the time of [Peugh’s] offense remained in effect at his sentencing. The Guidelines sentencing range is not the punishment affixed to the offense,” he said. 

Mr. Peugh was convicted of five counts of bank fraud in a scheme that caused more than $2.5 million in losses by the victim bank.

At Peugh’s sentencing, he faced 70 to 87 months in prison under the 2009 sentencing guidelines. Peugh objected to use of the 2009 guidelines, insisting that the judge should use the guidelines in effect at the time of his crimes.

Under those 1998 guidelines, the appropriate sentence ranged from 30 to 37 months in prison.

Peugh’s lawyer argued that relying on higher guidelines enacted after his client’s crimes were committed would amount to the use of an ex post facto law. The judge rejected the argument, and sentenced Peugh to 70 months in prison (five years and 10 months).

A panel of the Seventh US Circuit Court of Appeals also rejected the ex post facto argument and upheld the sentence.

In reversing those decisions on Monday, the Supreme Court said: “A retrospective increase in the Guidelines range applicable to a defendant creates a sufficient risk of a higher sentence to constitute an ex post facto violation.”

Joining Justice Sotomayor in the majority were Justices Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Elena Kagan.

Thomas’ dissent was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito.  

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