Stinson v. United States, 508 U.S. 36 (1993)

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certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the eleventh circuit

No. 91-8685. Argued March 24, 1993—Decided May 3, 1993

After petitioner Stinson pleaded guilty to a five-count indictment resulting from his robbery of a bank, the District Court sentenced him as a career offender under United States Sentencing Commission, Guidelines Manual 4B1.1, which requires, inter alia, that "the instant offense of conviction [be] a crime of violence." The court found that Stinson's offense of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, 18 U. S. C. 922(g), was a "crime of violence" as that term was then defined in USSG 4B1.2(1). While the case was on appeal, however, the Sentencing Commission promulgated Amendment 433, which added a sentence to the 4B1.2 commentary that expressly excluded the felon-in-possession offense from the "crime of violence" definition. The Court of Appeals nevertheless affirmed Stinson's sentence, adhering to its earlier interpretation that the crime in question was categorically a crime of violence and holding that the commentary to the Guidelines is not binding on the federal courts.

Held: The Guidelines Manual's commentary which interprets or explains a guideline is authoritative unless it violates the Constitution or a federal statute, or is inconsistent with, or a plainly erroneous reading of, that guideline. Pp. 40-48. (a) The Court of Appeals erred in concluding that the commentary added by Amendment 433 is not binding on the federal courts. Commentary which functions to "interpret [a] guideline or explain how it is to be applied," 1B1.7, controls, and if failure to follow, or a misreading of, such commentary results in a sentence "select[ed] . . . from the wrong guideline range," Williams v. United States, 503 U. S. 193, 203, that sentence would constitute "an incorrect application of the . . . guidelines" that should be set aside under 18 U. S. C. 3742(f)(1) unless the error was harmless, see Williams, supra, at 201. Guideline 1B1.7 makes this proposition clear, and this Court's holding in Williams, supra, at 201, that the Sentencing Commission's policy statements bind federal courts applies with equal force to the commentary at issue. However, it does not follow that commentary is binding in all instances. The standard that governs whether particular interpretive or explanatory commentary is binding is the one that applies to an agency's interpretation of its own legislative rule: Provided it does not violate the Constitu-

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