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Opinion analysis: Justices make statutory sentencing issue look simple

The statutory issue in Dean v. United States seems challenging if one focuses primarily on Congress’ intent and policy goals when enacting 18 U.S.C. § 924(c). Section 924(c) mandates lengthy consecutive mandatory-minimum terms for offenders who possess a firearm in furtherance of a crime of violence or drug trafficking crime; the government reasonably argued in this case that allowing sentencing judges to impose nominal punishment for predicate crimes to allow for the severity of mandated Section 924(c) sentences undercuts Congress’ obvious desire to require significant additional punishment for serious firearm offenders. But Chief Justice John Roberts authored an opinion for a unanimous court that, by focusing on the plain text of the applicable statutes, barely discussed that concern and thereby made the resolution of this case seem plain and simple.

Levon Dean was convicted of multiple robbery and firearms counts, including two counts in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c). Because of his two Section 924(c) convictions, Dean faced 30 years of federal imprisonment to run “in addition to the punishment provided” for his other convictions. Though his other convictions carried an advisory sentencing guidelines range of 84 to 105 months’ imprisonment, Dean requested that the district court vary downward to impose a sentence of just one day for all his other convictions. U.S. District Judge Mark Bennett indicated that, “if [he] could look at a combined package” of all the offenses together, “360 months plus 1 day” would be “more than sufficient for a sentence in this case.” But, Bennett continued, he lacked discretion to “go down to one day” for all the other convictions because precedent in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit required him “to look at [the underlying offenses] separately” from the Section 924(c) counts. On appeal, the 8th Circuit rejected Dean’s assertion that the district judge had discretion to impose only a one-day sentence for Dean’s other felonies.

At oral argument in February, even those justices who most often rule in favor of criminal defendants expressed concern about congressional sentencing goals when considering Dean’s argument. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan were quick to stress that Section 924(c) requires consecutive sentencing, which a one-day sentence for predicate felonies would functionally undermine. As Kagan put it, Dean’s reading of the applicable statutes would “utterly eviscerate[] something that Congress clearly did say” in requiring Section 924(c)’s sentences to be “in addition to” the sentence for the predicate crime. Justice Anthony Kennedy similarly suggested that Dean’s “position completely negates … the effect of 924.”

But although these concerns were front and center at oral argument, they were given short shrift in a unanimous opinion that focused on judges’ traditional sentencing authority and the text of the applicable sentencing statutes. After stressing that sentencing judges have “long enjoyed discretion in the sort of information they may consider when setting an appropriate sentence,” the court reviewed the general sentencing instructions of 18 U.S.C. § 3553 to highlight that they “permit a court imposing a sentence on one count of conviction to consider sentences imposed on other counts.” Having established broad sentencing discretion as the background norm, the court stated that “[n]othing in the law requires” that sentencing judges “calculate the appropriate term for each individual offense [and] disregard[] sentences the defendant may also face on other counts.”

Continuing in this vein, the court added that no specific language in Section 924(c) “restricts the authority conferred on sentencing courts.” The “in addition to” language of Section 924(c), explained the court, serves merely to require a consecutive sentence and “says nothing about the length of a non-§924(c).” And the section’s express limitation on concurrent sentencing simply requires prison terms to “run one after the other” and “does not affect a court’s discretion to consider a mandatory minimum when calculating each individual sentence.” The court also noted that another statute, 18 U.S.C. § 1028A, which imposes consecutive mandatory minimums for identity theft, expressly states that a district court “shall not in any way reduce” the underlying sentence based on, “or otherwise take into account,” the mandatory minimum when determining the proper sentence for the underlying offense. The court stressed that this statute shows that Congress knows how to restrict sentencing discretion and “that it would have been easy enough to make explicit what the Government argues is implicit in §924(c).”

In its concluding substantive paragraph, the court finally made express mention of congressional intent, but it did so only to reiterate that the issue in this case should be resolved based on existing statutory text: “The Government speaks of Congress’s intent to prevent district courts from bottoming out sentences for predicate §924(c) offenses whenever they think a mandatory minimum under §924(c) is already punishment enough. But no such intent finds expression in the language of §924(c).” Because the language is absent, the court concluded, it was wrong for the courts below to read into Section 924(c) any limitation on “considering a mandatory minimum under §924(c) when calculating an appropriate sentence for the predicate offense.”

Even though oral argument suggested some uncertainty among the justices about Dean’s case, the short opinion portrays unanimous certainty. That certainty is articulated by emphasizing the text of applicable sentencing statutes, but it also surely reflects the Supreme Court’s modern tendency in a variety of cases to extol and safeguard significant judicial sentencing discretion absent its express elimination by Congress. Though a relatively small ruling that will affect a relatively small number of cases, this opinion is a big reminder that all the justices are inclined to come together to protect the prerogative of fellow federal judges at sentencing.

Recommended Citation: Doug Berman, Opinion analysis: Justices make statutory sentencing issue look simple, SCOTUSblog (Apr. 4, 2017, 2:50 PM),