Abbott: Supreme Court Unanimously Holds § 924(c) “Except” Clause Applies Only to Greater Minimum Sentences Otherwise Provided for the Same Conduct Prohibited by § 924(c)

This Monday the federal Supreme Court issued its opinion in Abbott v. United States, together with Gould v. United States. The Court held 8-0 (Justice Kagan took no part in the decision) that a defendant is subject to the highest mandatory minimum sentence specified in § 924(c) unless another provision of law directed to conduct proscribed by that subsection imposes an even greater minimum. We are disappointed that the Court disregarded the plain language of the statute.

As we discussed in this post when the Court granted certiorari, § 924(c) contains a prefatory clause, called the “except” clause, that applies the subsection “[e]xcept to the extent that a greater minimum sentence is otherwise provided by this subsection or by any other provision of law.” We read that clause as plainly prohibiting the application of § 924(c) where “any other” greater minimum sentence applies. The government disagreed, arguing that the clause is triggered only when another provision commands a longer term for conduct that violates §924(c).

Gould argued the plain language of the clause: that it applied whenever any count of conviction at sentencing required a greater minimum sentence. Abbott proposed two potential happy mediums: that the minimum sentence “otherwise provided” must be one imposed for the §924(c) predicate crime or, in the alternative, for a firearm offense involving the same firearm that triggered §924(c). The Court rejected all three arguments.

The Court relied on the legislative history of § 924(c), reasoning that when enacting the “except” clause, Congress intended to treat gun possession more harshly.

The opinion in Abbott is available here.