In a ruling that could have larger implications for criminals in cases with long statutes of limitations, the Supreme Court decided on Monday that an Illinois court violated a defendant’s rights by sentencing him under guidelines adopted 10 years after his initial crimes.

In a 5-4 decision (PDF) written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the court ruled that Marvin Peugh's 2009 sentence for five counts of bank fraud violated his rights under the Constitution's Ex Post Facto clause, which forbids retroactive sentencing using federal guidelines. Peugh's lawyers argued he should be held to the sentencing guidelines used in 1998, when he and his cousin, Steven Hollewell, committed their crimes.

"District courts must begin their sentencing analysis with the Guidelines in effect at the time of the offense and use them to calculate the sentencing range correctly," Sotomayor wrote in the court's decision. "Those Guidelines will anchor both the district court's discretion and the appellate review process in all of the ways we have described. The newer Guidelines, meanwhile, will have the status of one of many reasons a district court might give for deviating from the older Guidelines, a status that is simply not equivalent for ex post facto purposes."

According to Amy Baron-Evans, sentencing resource counsel for the Federal Public and Community Defenders, the high court's ruling is likely to create confusion on how judges and appeals courts approach federal sentencing guidelines, since it is not limited to bank fraud cases.

"Some people and some circuits will read the majority opinion as making inroads on just how advisory the guidelines are," Baron-Evans told The Raw Story on Monday.

It's unclear how the high court's ruling would affect future cases involving drug trafficking, Baron-Evans said. Current federal sentencing guidelines for those types of offenses are unlikely to be increased given how harsh the penalties are now.

However, the decision does create the possibility that anyone who committed a crime, even a violent one, before current higher sentencing guidelines were established but was convicted after could see reductions in their sentences. For instance, someone who committed an act of federal child sex abuse before 2003, when Congress increased penalties, would under today's ruling be subject to the more lenient pre-2003 sentencing guidelines. Many states and the federal government increased their sentencing guidelines for child sex offenders around the same time that they extended the statute of limitations for filing cases in an effort to insure those convicted served significant sentences, an intention that, at the federal level, is undermined by today's ruling.

Baron-Evans, however, worries that today's ruling has the potential to undermine other rulings that declared federal mandatory sentencing unconstitutional.

"Just based on the statistics alone, you would say that there is a risk that [defendants] were to receive a higher sentence if the court were to use the new, higher guidelines," she explained. "That would have been enough, rather than creating confusion about the legal status of the guidelines. We thought it had been truly established that they were truly advisory."

In other words, Baron-Evans believed the high court could have just relied on data showing that judges issue sentences within guideline ranges the majority of the time. However, she added that she felt the court would "make clear" that the guidelines are not mandatory if and when it was faced with a case in which an appeals court picked up on some of the language to the contrary in Monday's decision.

The majority decision, she said, held that federal sentencing rules "create gentle checks" on a sentencing court's discretion -- but she agreed that part of the dissenting opinion deem the guidelines to be advisory only.

Monday's decision by the high court reverses a ruling by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which affirmed Peugh's 2009 sentence of 70 to 87 months in jail. Under the 1998 guidelines, Peugh would have been sentenced to between 30 and 37 months.

[Image via Wikipedia Commons]