Just Around the Corner

The Supreme Court is back in session on Monday, and we’re not ashamed to admit that we’re excited.  As always.  And they’re starting off the argument season with a bang — a critical issue on federal sentencing of gun crimes.  Can’t wait.

The case is actually two cases, Abbott v. U.S. and Gould v. U.S.  The issue is just what the heck 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) means.

§ 924(c) says, if you’re convicted of possessing a gun during a narcotics crime, you get a 5-year minimum sentence, to be served consecutively.  Unless, that is, “a greater minimum sentence is otherwise provided by this subsection or any other law.”

Such straightforward language, and yet capable of so many different interpretations.  Is it written to make sure that you get at least 5 years if you carried a gun during a drug crime?  Or is the point to make sure that you get at least an extra 5 years, added to the original sentence?

Does it mean that, if you’re already facing a mandatory minimum greater than 5 years for the gun, then § 924(c) doesn’t even apply?

Does it mean that, if you’re already facing a mandatory minimum greater than 5 years for any crime, not just the gun, then § 924(c) doesn’t apply?

Does it only protect you if there’s another law imposing a greater sentence specifically for your violation of § 924(c)?

This is where statutory construction gets hairy.  Poorly-drafted statutes are not trifles.  Lives and liberty are at stake.  Just as with the horrible “honest services” law the Court dealt with last term, this is an example of those crafting the laws being unclear and uninformed about the very area of law they are affecting.  They either didn’t think it through, or they didn’t make the point clearly enough.  And thousands of people suffer as a result.

We don’t know the stats, but we’d estimate that thousands of people every year get sentenced under this section.  How many are doing 5 years too many?

We can’t wait to see what the answer is going to be.

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