April 29, 2009

Supreme Court Decides Dean v. United States

On April 29, 2009, the Supreme Court decided Dean v. United States, No. 08-5274.

Federal law prohibits using or carrying a firearm during a violent or drug-trafficking crime. Under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1)(A), a person convicted of that offense receives a mandatory minimum prison sentence of five years, in addition to any punishment for the underlying crime. The mandatory minimum increases to seven years if the gun "is brandished" and to 10 years if it "is discharged." In this case, Dean robbed a bank using a gun, which went off during the crime. After his conviction and the imposition of a mandatory 10-year term for the firearm violation, he argued on appeal that the statutory sentence enhancement applies only if the government proves that a defendant intended to discharge the gun, and he claimed that his gun had discharged accidentally. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit rejected his argument and affirmed the enhanced sentence.

The Supreme Court affirmed. Noting that it "ordinarily resists reading words or elements into a statute that do not appear on its face," the Court refused to add an intent element to the statute here. It parsed the statutory language carefully and found that the wording was inconsistent with such an element. The Court observed that it is not unusual to punish people for the unintended consequences of their unlawful acts, as was done here.

Chief Justice Roberts delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Souter, Thomas, Ginsberg and Alito joined. Justices Stevens and Breyer each filed a dissenting opinion.

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