Fascination: the U.S. Supreme Court Once Again Looks at Federal Gun Law

The online Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the root word of “fascination” as “to transfix or hold spellbound by an irresistible power.”  Since 1971, the Supreme Court of the United States has on all least 13 occasions directly addressed various aspects of the federal gun crime found at 18 U.S.C. §924(c).  A total of forty-three Supreme Court cases involve people convicted of this law, even if the issue did not directly involve the language of this statute.  The High Court’s “fascination” with this statute continues, this time with a case out of Iowa, Dean v. United States, the docket for which can be found here.  The Supreme Court granted review of the case this past October, and will hear arguments on the last day of February, 2017.

Those of us who regularly practice criminal law in the federal court system generally refer to this statute as “924(c)”.  The history of the law is interesting, and somewhat relevant to current public debates.  In 1968, violent crime rates were rising, reaching a peak in the early 1990’s, after which they have dropped significantly.  The FBI numbers can be found on their database.

With crimes rates on the rise, Congress in 1968 added this law with the obvious idea of both trying to heavily punish and possibly deter people who feel it is a good idea to bring a gun to a crime.  Under 924(c), anyone who uses or carries or possesses a firearm (or explosive device) as part of a violent crime faces mandatory prison time.  This mandatory prison sentence has to follow, or in the words we use in federal court, must be “consecutive” to, any penalty for the underlying crime.  Furthermore, if the Defendant did more than one violent crime, and had a gun each time, the penalties get multiplied (the first is 5 the second is 25 on top of the first 5, you get the idea).  It is not unheard of for the 924(c) component of a federal sentence to be 5-30 years or more, before the judge even gets around to figuring out the penalty for the crime the gun was used in.

Not only does the law have severe penalties, it also is exceedingly difficult to read and understand.  As noted before, the Supreme Court has waded into the thicket of the language over a dozen times, trying to figure out the meaning of ambiguous phrases like “use or carry” or “during and in relation to.”  The Justices have realized over the years that the 924(c) statute gives a huge advantage to prosecutors who can bring (or threaten to bring) charges under this statute against a Defendant to make him and his lawyer knuckle under and plead guilty (or more likely, to rat on somebody else involved).

The latest incarnation of the Supreme Court’s infatuation with 924(c) deals with what information the sentencing judge can consider when deciding the appropriate sentence for the underlying crime.  Ever since 2005, judges have had the ability to “vary” from the Sentencing Guidelines that apply to this underlying crime.  However, a case from the Eighth Circuit (the federal appeals court that covers all federal cases in Iowa) says that a judge cannot think about how much time the Defendant will automatically receive under 924(c) when the judge is deciding what kind of sentence the person should get for the underlying crime. In the Dean case, the Defendant and his even-more foolish brother used guns to rob drug dealers and then “jack” a vehicle, yielding 35 years worth of 924(c) time in prison.  The Judge thought that was plenty for the brother who was basically along for the ride, and the Judge said he would have given only a single day in prison for the underlying crimes but for previous Eighth Circuit case.  As mentioned above, arguments will take place February 28, stay tuned for the last example of the Court’s fascination with this statute.

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