Upholds 10-year mandatory minimum gun sentence
Chief Justice Roberts opened the opinion in Dean v. United States (2009) by observing, “[a]ccidents happen. Sometimes they happen to individuals committing crimes with loaded guns. The question here is whether extra punishment Congress imposed for the discharge of a gun during certain crimes applies when the gun goes off accidentally.”
In a 7-2 opinion, in Dean v. United States, the Supreme Court answered “yes.” Click here to read the opinion.
Christopher Michael Dean was robbing a bank when the gun he was holding accidentally fired. Besides attempted bank robbery, the government charged him with a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c). It provides:
[A]ny person who, during and in relation to any crime of violence or drug trafficking crime . . . uses or carries a firearm, or who, in furtherance of any such crime, possesses a firearm, shall, in addition to the punishment provided for such crime . . .
(i) be sentenced to a term of imprisonment of not less than five years;
(ii) if the firearm is brandished, be sentenced to a term of imprisonment of not less than 7 years; and
(iii) if the firearm is discharged, be sentenced to a term of imprisonment of not less than 10 years.
Mr. Dean was convicted of violating § 924(c) and sentenced, over his objections, to the 10-year mandatory minimum for discharging a firearm during the robbery. When the case reached the Supreme Court, he argued that the text, structure and legislative history of the statute require that the 10-year mandatory minimum not be imposed unless the defendant intended to discharge the firearm, which he did not.
Click here to read briefs in the Dean case
Click here to read oral arguments in the Dean case
Failing that, he argued that the statute, if ambiguous, should be interpreted using a traditional tool of statutory construction called the “rule of lenity.” The rule of lenity is used when different interpretations of an unclear statute would lead to different penalties, some more severe than others. The rule of lenity requires that the court select the interpretation that results in the least severe sentence.
The majority held that 924(c) 10-year mandatory minimum is triggered even though the discharge is not intended. The provision, the Court said, does not have an intent (or “mens rea”) requirement. It came to this conclusion by looking at the language and structure of the law; by rejecting the notion that there is an implicit intent requirement; and by determining that there is no ambiguity severe enough to require the use of the rule of lenity.
The 10-year mandatory minimum is imposed “if the firearm is discharged.” The majority held that the plain language of the statute does not say the discharge had to be done “knowingly or intentionally.” The underlying act, of possessing the gun in furtherance of a crime of violence, supplied all the intent necessary. The fact that the statute described the conduct in the passive voice (using “is discharged”) was also evidence that Congress did not mean to limit the mandatory minimum only to those who intended to fire the gun. The Court also pointed out that the statute includes mens rea requirements for the five- and seven-year mandatory minimums but did not include one for discharging. Congress could easily have included an explicit mens rea requirement and did not.
The majority opinion also rejected an argument that there is a presumption that criminal prohibitions include a requirement that the government prove the defendant intended the criminal conduct. Dean had argued that when the penalty provisions escalate the punishment based on the increasing culpability of the defendant, the defendant should have intended the more serious conduct to merit the more serious sentence. Accidental discharge is less culpable than intentional brandishment. The Court responded that criminal laws punish people for unintended acts in provisions such as those for felony murder (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Felony_murder_rule.) which punishes as murder an unintended homicide committed during an intended lawful felony. Finally, the Court held that there was no ambiguity sufficient to invoke the rule of lenity.
Justice Stevens in dissent pointed out that Congress likely intended to provide for escalating sentences based not on mistake but on blameworthiness. Thus only intended and not accidental discharges should qualify for the increased mandatory minimum. In the alternative, there is a presumption in the law that laws imposing criminal penalties only impose them for intended conduct. The felony murder rule is not, he argued, a sound comparison because the increased penalty there punishes a real outcome, which is what the law is getting at: the infliction of additional harm.
Justice Breyer in his dissenting opinion reiterated his opinion, stated at oral argument, that there ought to be a special emphasis on the rule of lenity in mandatory minimum cases.
For background on the Dean case, click here.