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UNITED STATES v. R. L. C.

decided: March 24, 1992.

UNITED STATES, PETITIONER
v.
R. L. C.



ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE EIGHTH CIRCUIT.

Souter, J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I, II-A, and III, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and White, Stevens, Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas, JJ., joined, and an opinion with respect to Parts II-B and II-C, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and White and Stevens, JJ., joined. Scalia, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, in which Kennedy and Thomas, JJ., joined. Thomas, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment. O'connor, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Blackmun, J., joined.

Author: Souter

JUSTICE SOUTER announced the judgment of the Court and delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I, II-A, and III, and an opinion with respect to Parts II-B and II-C, in which THE CHIEF JUSTICE, JUSTICE WHITE, and JUSTICE STEVENS join.

The provisions of the Juvenile Delinquency Act require 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." 18 U.S.C. § 5037(c)(1)(B). We hold that this limitation refers to the maximum sentence that could be imposed if the juvenile were being sentenced after application of the United States Sentencing Guidelines.

I

Early in the morning of November 5, 1989, after a night of drinking, the then-16-year-old respondent R. L. C. and another juvenile stole a car with which they struck another automobile, fatally injuring one of its passengers, 2-year-old La Tesha Mountain. R. L. C. is a member of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians, and these events took place on the Red Lake Indian Reservation, which is within Indian country as defined by federal law. These circumstances provide federal jurisdiction in this case. See 18 U.S.C. §§ 1151, 1162, 1153. Upon certifying that a proceeding was authorized in federal court under § 5032 on the ground that no state court had jurisdiction over the offense, the Government charged R. L. C. with an act of juvenile delinquency.

After a bench trial, the District Court found R. L. C. to be a juvenile who had driven the car recklessly while intoxicated and without the owner's authorization, causing Mountain's death. R. L. C. was held to have committed an act of juvenile delinquency within the meaning of § 5031, since his acts would have been the crime of involuntary manslaughter in violation of 18 U.S.C. §§ 1112(a) and 1153 if committed by an adult. The maximum sentence for involuntary manslaughter under 18 U.S.C. § 1112(b) is three years. At R. L. C.'s dispositional hearing, the District Court granted the Government's request to impose the maximum penalty for the respondent's delinquency and accordingly committed him to official detention for three years.

Despite the manslaughter statute's provision for an adult sentence of that length, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, 915 F.2d 320 (1990), vacated R. L. C.'s sentence and remanded for resentencing, after concluding that 36 months exceeded the cap imposed by § 5037(c)(1)(B) upon the period of detention to which a juvenile delinquent may be sentenced. Although the statute merely provides that juvenile detention may not extend beyond "the maximum term of imprisonment that would be authorized if the juvenile had been tried and convicted as an adult,"*fn1 the Court of Appeals read this language to bar a juvenile term longer than the sentence a court could have imposed on a similarly situated adult after applying the United States Sentencing Guidelines. Under the Guidelines, involuntary manslaughter caused by recklessness has a base offense level of 14. United States Sentencing Commission, Guidelines Manual, § 2A1.4(a)(2) (Nov. 1991). The court found, and the Government agrees, see Brief for United States 22, n. 5, that because R. L. C. had the lowest possible criminal history level, Category I, the Guidelines would yield a sentencing range of 15-21 months for a similarly situated adult. The Court of Appeals therefore concluded that the maximum period of detention to which R. L. C. could be sentenced was 21 months.

The Government sought no stay of mandate from the Court of Appeals, and on remand the District Court imposed detention for 18 months. Although R. L. C. has now served this time, his failure to complete the 3-year detention originally imposed and the possibility that the remainder of it could be imposed saves the case from mootness. See United States v. Villamonte-Marquez, 462 U.S. 579, 581, n. 2 (1983). We granted the Government's petition for certiorari, 501 U.S. (1991), to resolve the conflict between the Eighth Circuit's holding in this case and the Ninth Circuit's position, adopted in United States v. Marco L., 868 F.2d 1121, cert. denied, 493 U.S. 956 (1989), and endorsed by the Government.

II

A

The Government suggests a straightforward enquiry into plain meaning to explain what is "authorized." It argues that the word "authorized" must mean the maximum term of imprisonment provided for by the statute defining the offense, since only Congress can "authorize" a term of imprisonment in punishment for a crime. As against the position that the Sentencing Guidelines now circumscribe a trial court's authority, the Government insists that our concern must be with the affirmative authority for imposing a sentence, which necessarily stems from statutory law. It maintains that in any event the Sentencing Commission's congressional authorization to establish sentencing guidelines does not create affirmative authority to set punishments for crime, and that the Guidelines do not purport to authorize the punishments to which they relate.

But this is too easy. The answer to any suggestion that the statutory character of a specific penalty provision gives it primacy over administrative sentencing guidelines is that the mandate to apply the Guidelines is itself statutory. See 18 U.S.C. § 3553(b). More significantly, the Government's argument that "authorization" refers only to what is affirmatively provided by penal statutes, without reference to the Sentencing Guidelines to be applied under statutory mandate, seems to us to beg the question. Of course it is true that no penalty would be "authorized" without a statute providing specifically for the penal consequences of defined criminal activity. The question, however, is whether Congress intended the courts to treat the upper limit of such a penalty as "authorized" even when proper application of a statutorily mandated guideline in an adult case would bar imposition up to the limit, and an unwarranted upward departure from the proper guideline range would be reversible error. 18 U.S.C. § 3742. Here it suffices to say that the Government's construction is by no means plain. The text is at least equally consistent with treating "authorized" to refer 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. This, indeed, is arguably the more natural construction.

Plain-meaning analysis does not, then, provide the Government with a favorable answer. 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.

B

On the assumption that ambiguity exists, we turn to examine the textual evolution of the limitation in question and the legislative history that may explain or elucidate it.*fn2 The predecessor of § 5037(c) as included in the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974 provided that a juvenile adjudged delinquent could be committed to the custody of the Attorney General for a period "not [to] extend beyond the juvenile's twenty-first birthday or the maximum term which could have been imposed on an adult convicted of the same offense, whichever is sooner." 18 U.S.C. § 5037(b) (1982 ed.) (emphasis added). In its current form, the statute refers to the "maximum term of imprisonment that would be authorized if the juvenile had been tried and convicted as an adult." 18 U.S.C. § 5037(c) (emphasis added). On its face, the current language suggests a change in reference from abstract consideration of the penalty permitted in punishment of the adult offense, to a focused inquiry into the maximum that would be available in the circumstances of the particular juvenile before the court. The intervening history supports this reading.

With the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 (chapter II of the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984, Pub. L. 98-473, § 214(a), 98 Stat. 2013), § 5037 was rewritten. As § 5037(c)(1)(B), its relevant provision became "the maximum term of imprisonment that would be authorized by section 3581(b) if the juvenile had been tried and convicted as an adult." 18 U.S.C. §§ 5037 (c)(1)(B), (c)(2)(B)(ii) (1982 ed., Supp. II) (emphasis added). The emphasized language was quickly deleted, however, by the Criminal Law and Procedure Technical Amendments Act of 1986, Pub. L. 99-646, § 21(a)(2), 100 Stat. 3596 (Technical Amendments Act), resulting in the present statutory text, "the maximum term of imprisonment that would be authorized if the juvenile had been tried and convicted as an adult." It thus lost the reference to § 3581(b), which would have guided the sentencing court in identifying the "authorized" term of imprisonment.

R. L. C. argues that this loss is highly significant. Section 3581(b)*fn3 was and still is part of a classification system adopted in 1984 for use in setting the incidents of punishment for federal offenses by reference to letter grades reflecting their relative seriousness. One provision, for example, sets the maximum period of supervised release for each letter grade. 18 U.S.C. § 3583. Section 3581(b) sets out the maximum term of imprisonment for each letter grade, providing, for instance, that the authorized term of imprisonment for a Class C felony is not more than 12 years, for a Class D not more than 6, and for a Class E not more than 3.

The deletion of the reference to § 3581(b) with its specific catalog of statutory maximums would seem to go against the Government's position. Since, for example, a juvenile who had committed what would have been an adult Class E felony would apparently have been subject to three years of detention, because § 3581(b) "authorized" up to three years of imprisonment for an adult, the deletion of the reference to § 3581(b) would appear to indicate some congressional intent to broaden the range of enquiry when determining what was authorized.*fn4

The Government, however, finds a different purpose, disclosed in the section-by-section analysis prepared by the Department of Justice to accompany the bill that became the Technical Amendments Act. The Department's analysis included this explanation for the proposal to delete the reference to § 3581(b): "Because of the effect of 18 U.S.C. § 3559(b)(2), deleting the reference to 18 U.S.C. § 3581(b) will tie the maximum sentences for juveniles to the maximum for adults, rather than making juvenile sentences more severe than adult sentences." 131 Cong. Rec. 14177 (1985). Congress had enacted § 3559 to reconcile the new sentencing schedule, providing for the incidents of conviction according to the offense's assigned letter grade, with the pre-existing body of federal criminal statutes, which of course included no assignments of letter grades to the particular offenses they ...


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