UNITED STATES v. R. L. C. 503 U.S. 291

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No. 90-1577. Argued December 10, 1991-Decided March 24,1992

Because certain conduct of respondent R. L. C. at age 16 would have constituted the crime of involuntary manslaughter under 18 U. S. C. §§ 1112(a) and 1153 if committed by an adult, the District Court held that he had committed an act of juvenile delinquency within the meaning of the Juvenile Delinquency Act. In light of a provision of that Act requiring the length of official detention in certain circumstances to be limited to "the maximum term of imprisonment that would be authorized if the juvenile had been tried and convicted as an adult," § 5037(c)(I)(B), the court committed R. L. C. to detention for three years, the maximum sentence for involuntary manslaughter under § 1112(b). Reading § 5037(c)(I)(B) to bar a juvenile term longer than the sentence a court could impose on a similarly situated adult after applying the United States Sentencing Guidelines, and finding that the Guidelines would yield a maximum sentence of 21 months for an adult in R. L. Co's circumstances, the Court of Appeals vacated his sentence and remanded for resentencing.

Held: The judgment is affirmed. 915 F.2d 320, affirmed.

JUSTICE SOUTER delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I, II -A, and III, concluding:

1. Plain-meaning analysis does not compel adoption of the Government's construction that the word "authorized" in § 5037(c)(I)(B) must refer to the maximum term of imprisonment provided for by the statute defining the offense. At least equally consistent, and arguably more natural, is the construction that "authorized" refers to the result of applying all statutes with a required bearing on the sentencing decision, including not only those that empower the court to sentence but those that limit the legitimacy of its exercise of that power, including § 3553(b), which requires application of the Guidelines and caps an adult sentence at the top of the relevant Guideline range, absent circumstances warranting departure. Thus, the most that can be said from examining the text in its present form is that the Government may claim its preferred construction to be one possible resolution of statutory ambiguity. Pp.297-298.



2. The § 5037(c)(1)(B) limitation refers to the maximum sentence that could be imposed if the juvenile were being sentenced after application of the Guidelines. Although determining the maximum permissible sentence under § 5037(c)(1)(B) will require sentencing and reviewing courts to determine an appropriate Guideline range in juveniledelinquency proceedings, it does not require plenary application of the Guidelines to juvenile delinquents. Where the statutory provision applies, a sentencing court's concern with the Guidelines goes solely to the upper limit of the proper Guideline range as setting the maximum term for which a juvenile may be committed to official detention, absent circumstances that would warrant departure under § 3553(b). pp.306-307.

JUSTICE SOUTER, joined by THE CHIEF JUSTICE, JUSTICE WHITE, and JUSTICE STEVENS, delivered an opinion with respect to Parts II-B and II -C, concluding that:

1. The textual evolution of § 5037(c)(1)(B) and the relevant legislative history reinforce the conclusion that the section is better understood to refer to the maximum sentence permitted under § 3553(b). Whereas the predecessor of § 5037(c) spoke in terms of the "maximum term which could have been imposed on an adult" (emphasis added), the current version's reference to "the juvenile," on its face suggests a change in reference from abstract considerations to a focused inquiry into the circumstances of the particular juvenile. Although an intervening version referred to the maximum sentence "that would be authorized by section 3581 (b) if the juvenile had been tried and convicted as an adult" (emphasis added), the emphasized language was quickly deleted, resulting in the present statutory text. The legislative history demonstrates that Congress intended the deletion to conform juvenile and adult maximum sentences, in that § 3581(b), which catalogs such sentences for federal offenses by reference to their relative seriousness, could in some circumstances have appeared to authorize a longer sentence for a juvenile than an adult would have received. Absent promulgation of the Guidelines, the deletion might have left the question of the "authorized" maximum to be determined by reference to the penalty provided by the statute creating the offense. However, Congress' purpose today can be achieved only by reading "authorized" to refer to the maximum sentence that may be imposed consistently with § 3553(b), which will generally provide a ceiling more favorable to the juvenile than that contained in the offense-defining statute. It hardly seems likely that Congress adopted the current § 5037(c) without intending the recently enacted Guidelines scheme to be considered for the purpose of conforming juvenile and adult sentences. Pp. 298-305.

Full Text of Opinion


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