On September 15, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which sits here in Atlanta, Georgia, decided a federal drug and firearm case, U.S. v. Segarra. Drug laws and the gun statute 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) each carry heavy mandatory minimum sentences. The drug minimums are often longer than the minimum called for by § 924(c). In Segarra the Eleventh Circuit was confronted with what is called the “except” clause in § 924(c). Despite the language in this clause, the Eleventh Circuit ruled for the government, and said that the drug and § 924(c) minimum sentences must run consecutively with one another, instead of having the shorter gun sentence run concurrently with the drug penalty.
Mr. Segarra pleaded guilty to possession with intent to distribute crack, as well as possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug-trafficking offense, in violation of § 924(c). Generally, § 924(c) provides for a minimum sentence of five years for possession of a gun during any crime of violence or drug trafficking crime, in addition to the punishment for the underlying crime. However, the section begins with the following exception: “Except to the extent that a greater minimum sentence is otherwise provided by this subsection or by any other provision of law…”
Mr. Segarra, who was sentenced to the minimum sentence of ten years for his drug crime and an additional five years for the firearm, argued on appeal that his five-year minimum consecutive sentence for the firearm was prohibited by the “except” clause because the underlying offense carried a greater mandatory minimum. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals followed this interpretation in U.S. v. Williams, reasoning that the plain language of the statute forbids the mandatory minimum for the firearm from applying where another provision of law requires a higher minimum sentence.
The Eleventh Circuit, and other circuits which have addressed the issue, rejected the literal meaning of the “except” clause. Yet, the Eleventh Circuit purported to rely on the plain meaning of the statute. The Court looked to § 924(c)(1)(D)(ii), which adds, “no term of imprisonment… under this subsection shall run concurrently with any other term of imprisonment imposed….” The Court said, “To read the statute as the Second Circuit did would ignore § 924(c)(1)(D)(ii).” However, the Second Circuit explicitly addressed that part of the statute in Williams, explaining that reading the “except” clause literally would prevent § 924(c) from being imposed at all, so there would be no concurrent sentences. Even if § 924(c)(1)(D)(ii) creates an ambiguity with regard to the “except” clause, that ambiguity must be resolved in favor of the criminal defendant.
We are disappointed that the Eleventh Circuit did not follow the interpretation of the Second Circuit and we hope that the Supreme Court will consider this issue and resolve the circuit court split in favor of defendants.