Breaking News

Opinion analysis: The Supreme Court narrows an exception to mandatory firearm sentences

On Monday, the Court in Abbott v. United States unanimously rebuffed efforts by two defendants to broaden an exception to mandatory firearm sentences under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c). Under § 924(c), possession of a firearm during a drug trafficking or violent crime requires a minimum five-year sentence consecutive to “any other term of imprisonment imposed.” Longer mandatory sentences govern when the firearm is brandished or discharged. The statute, however, also limits this mandatory sentence, providing that the sentence applies “[e]xcept to the extent that a greater minimum sentence is otherwise provided by [§ 924(c)] or by any other provision of law.” Abbott required the Court to determine the scope of this “except” clause.

Defendants Kevin Abbott and Carlos Rashad Gould were sentenced to five-year prison terms under § 924(c). In each case, the § 924(c) sentence ran consecutive to another mandatory minimum sentence—a ten-year drug trafficking sentence for Gould, and a fifteen-year Armed Career Criminal Act sentence for Abbott. The lower courts rejected Abbott and Gould’s argument that these greater minimum sentences fell within § 924(c)’s “except” clause and thus relieved them of the additional five-year § 924(c) sentence.

In an opinion by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the unanimous Court, with Justice Kagan recused, sided with the government and construed the “except” clause narrowly to exempt a defendant from a § 924(c) sentence only when the defendant is subject to “a greater mandatory minimum for an offense that embodies all the elements of a § 924(c) offense.” In working to this decision, the Court observed that “[t]he ‘except’ clause … ‘has to have some understood referent to be intelligible.’” Gould asserted the referent that he was sentenced to a ten-year minimum sentence on a different count of conviction. Abbott offered a narrower “transactional” referent: his other minimum sentence stemmed from the same criminal transaction that triggered the § 924(c) conviction, and even involved the same firearm as the § 924(c) conviction. These referents, Abbott and Gould argued, confine § 924(c) to its limited statutory purpose: ensuring that defendants serve at least five years in prison for these firearm offenses.

The Court disagreed. Examining the text and legislative history of the 1998 amendment that added the “except” clause to § 924(c), the Court reasoned that “were we to accept any of the readings proposed by Abbott or Gould … we would undercut that same bill’s primary objective: to expand § 924(c)’s coverage to reach firearm possession.” The Court emphasized, “[w]e doubt that Congress meant a prefatory clause, added in a bill dubbed ‘An Act [t]o throttle criminal use of guns,’ to effect a departure so great from § 924(c)’s longstanding thrust, i.e., its insistence that sentencing judges imposed additional punishment for § 924(c) violations.” Abbott and Gould’s constructions, moreover, would result in sentencing “anomalies.” For example, more culpable offenders would be relieved of a § 924(c) sentence because their more serious crimes would implicate tougher penalties under other statutes.

These factors led the Court to conclude that “[t]here is strong contextual support for our view that Congress intended the ‘except’ clause to serve simply as a clarification of § 924(c), not as a major restraint on the statute’s operation.” The Court thus construed the “any other provision of law” language in the “except” clause as a “safety valve” to prevent prosecutors from “stacking” § 924(c) sentences through offenses equivalent to a § 924(c) offense that are codified outside of § 924(c) itself.

The Court acknowledged that “Abbott and Gould project a rational, less harsh, mode of sentencing. But we do not think it was the mode Congress ordered.” The Court thus declined Abbott and Gould’s invitation to apply the rule of “lenity,” under which courts construe ambiguous statutory language to favor a criminal defendant. Observing that “’the touchstone of the rule of lenity is statutory ambiguity,’” the Court found insufficient ambiguity to require this statutory tie-breaker.

Abbott extends a lot of charging leverage to prosecutors in the fairly large number of cases in which defendants possess a firearm during a drug trafficking or violent crime. Prosecutors now are prohibited from stacking minimum sentences against these defendants only if the prosecutor stacks actual § 924(c) sentences, or a § 924(c) sentence and a sentence for an offense equivalent to a § 924(c) offense that is codified elsewhere. Otherwise, defendants are “not spared from [a § 924(c)] sentence by virtue of receiving a higher mandatory minimum on a different count of conviction.”

Brooks Holland is an Assistant Professor of Law and a Gonzaga Law Foundation Scholar, Gonzaga University School of Law. Laurel Yecny, a law student at Gonzaga, helped to prepare this post.

Recommended Citation: Brooks Holland, Opinion analysis: The Supreme Court narrows an exception to mandatory firearm sentences, SCOTUSblog (Nov. 17, 2010, 12:10 PM),