Judges Can Blunt Harsh Gun Sentences, SCOTUS Says

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By Alisa Johnson

A federal judge can consider a lesser sentence for underlying crimes if the defendant convicted in the case faces a long prison term for using a gun, the U.S. Supreme Court held April 3 ( Dean v. United States , 2017 BL 107794, U.S., No. 15-9260, 4/3/17 ).

The firearms measure doesn’t trump the general federal sentencing statute’s holistic mandate, Chief Justice John G. Roberts wrote for the unanimous court.

“The bar on imposing concurrent sentences does not affect a court’s discretion to consider a mandatory minimum when calculating each individual sentence,” he wrote.

The decision drew mixed reactions.

“The ruling might well be correct as a literal reading of the statute, but frustrates Congress’s quite clear intent to maximize punishment where it’s most needed, to wit, for repeat felons who arm themselves,” William G. Otis, a former federal prosecutor and special counsel to President George H. W. Bush, told Bloomberg BNA in an email.

Otis, who now teaches at Georgetown University Law Center, Washington, added that “Congress can fix the problem by more specific statutory language. For example, by requiring at least some rock bottom minimum sentence for the underlying crime.”

The decision “is an important victory for criminal defendants and their families,” Amy Mason Saharia of Williams & Connolly LLP said in an email to Bloomberg BNA.

She participated in an amicus brief for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and Families Against Mandatory Minimums in support of the petitioner, Levon Dean Jr.

“As the Court recognized, the fact that defendants convicted under § 924(c) face lengthy mandatory minimums is surely relevant to the length of imprisonment to be imposed on other counts of conviction,” she wrote.

Robbed Drug Dealers

Dean was convicted of multiple robbery and firearms counts after committing two robberies of drug dealers with his brother. His brother threatened and assaulted the victims with a gun while Dean looked for valuables.

He was also convicted under 18 U.S.C. 924(c), which imposed consecutive mandatory minimum sentences for the involvement of a firearm in the crimes. His two mandatory sentences added up to 30 years: a five-year minimum for the first offense and a 25-year minimum for the second.

Because of the severity of the mandatory firearm punishment, Dean requested a sentence of just one day for the robbery and conspiracy offenses.

The district court believed that 30 years plus one day was “more than sufficient,” but thought it lacked the authority under Section 924(c) to impose a minimum sentence for the underlying crimes.

Traditional Discretion Remains

The district court has the power to counteract the effect of the mandatory minimum, the court held.

“Sentencing courts have long enjoyed discretion in the sort of information they may consider when setting an appropriate sentence,” it said. This information includes a mandatory consecutive minimum applicable to another count, it added.

“Whether the sentence for the predicate offense is one day or one decade, a district court does not violate the terms of §924(c) so long as it imposes the mandatory minimum ‘in addition to’ the sentence for the violent or drug trafficking crime,” the court said.

The court pointed to the general sentencing statute, 18 U.S.C. 3553(a), which instructs courts to “impose a sentence sufficient, but not greater than necessary, to comply with” the four identified purposes of sentencing: just punishment, deterrence, protection of the public, and rehabilitation.

The fact that the 23-year-old Dean would be 53 by the time his mandatory sentence expired is relevant, the court observed.

To contact the reporter on this story: Alisa Johnson in Washington at ajohnson@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: C. Reilly Larson at rlarson@bna.com

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