Vanderbilt Law Review

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The United States Sentencing Commission ("Sentencing Commission") drafted Rule 3E1.1 with an inherent ambiguity, one that concerns both the Rule's purpose and design. Rule 3E1.1 allows for a reduction in sentence if a criminal "accepts responsibility" for his offense.' As result of the Rule's ambiguous language, prior tensions in interpretation of its meaning have spilled over into the current debate over sentence reductions.

The inherent ambiguity results from the Rule's genesis. The Sentencing Commission enacted the Rule with the purpose of increasing predictability in sentencing by reducing judicial discretion. Before the enactment of the Rule, mitigating and aggravating circumstances allowed for a great degree of judicial discretion, and it was this lack of uniformity that the Sentencing Commission sought to lessen.

Rule 3E1.1 also sought to ease the burden on the over-taxed criminal justice system by encouraging guilty pleas. The Sentencing Commission initially feared, however, that granting an automatic reduction in sentence for pleading guilty would run afoul of the doctrine of unconstitutional conditions. Thus, their solution was not to encourage criminal defendants to forgo their Sixth Amendment right to trial and plead guilty, but rather to reward them for general cooperation and contrition. By creating a system in which criminal defendants were merely denied a reduction for failing to cooperate with authorities, the Sentencing Commission sought to encourage criminal defendants to plead guilty, while at the same time avoiding the problem of unconstitutional conditions.

The resulting Rule achieved both goals. It encouraged guilty pleas by reducing a defendant's sentence if he "accepted responsibility" for his criminal conduct. It also increased predictability by creating an objective list of criteria that district courts would use to determine whether a defendant had in fact "accepted responsibility" for his crime.