Oral argument: Mar. 4, 2009
Appealed from: United States Court of Appeals, Eleventh Circuit (Feb. 20, 2008)
CRIMINAL LAW, MENS REA, SENTENCE ENHANCEMENT, MANDATORY MINIMUM, FIREARM
Petitioner Christopher Michael Dean was convicted for a bank robbery in which he fired, probably by accident, a pistol. In addition to his sentence for the bank robbery, Dean was sentenced under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1)(A)(iii), which imposes a ten-year mandatory minimum sentence for the discharge of a firearm during a violent crime. The question presented to the Supreme Court is whether courts can apply the sentence enhancement under § 924(c)(1)(A)(iii) if the discharge was accidental, or whether prosecutors must first prove that the defendant intended to fire the gun. Dean argues that prosecutors must prove that the defendant intended to fire the gun for the additional ten-year mandatory minimum to apply. The United States, on the other hand, contends that sentence enhancement statutes are not standalone criminal offenses and, therefore, that courts can apply these statutes without proof of intent. The outcome of this case could affect how often convicted individuals will receive enhanced sentences, based on whether the Supreme Court decides that prosecutors must prove intent for sentence enhancement factors, or whether the Court views sentence enhancement statutes as merely tailoring sentences to the specific facts of the underlying offense.
Whether 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1)(A)(iii), establishing a ten-year mandatory minimum sentence for a defendant who "discharge[s]" a firearm during a crime of violence, requires proof that the discharge was volitional, and not merely accidental, unintentional, or involuntary.
Does a federal law imposing a ten-year minimum additional sentence on a defendant who fired a gun during a violent crime apply even if the firing was an accident?
Petitioner Christopher Michael Dean and his brother-in-law, Ricardo Curtis Lopez, were convicted in federal district court for a bank robbery that occurred on November 10, 2004, in Rome, Georgia. See United States v. Dean, 517 F.3d 1224, 1227 (2008). A masked man, later identified as Dean, entered AmSouth Bank's Rome branch carrying a pistol. See id. at 1226. Dean proceeded to the teller stations and took money from a teller drawer with his left hand while holding the pistol in his right hand. See id. at 1227. Dean then approached the head teller station, where he started taking money from the teller drawer with his left hand. See id. While Dean was grabbing the money, the pistol went off. See id. The shot did not harm anyone. See id. After the pistol fired, Dean "cursed himself" as if he had not meant for the pistol to fire. Id. He then grabbed more money and ran out of the bank with over $3,600 in cash. See id.
Following their arrests, Dean and Lopez each claimed responsibility for the AmSouth robbery. See id. After a trial in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia, the jury convicted Dean and Lopez on two counts. See id. On the first count, the jury found both Dean and Lopez guilty of conspiring to interfere with interstate commerce by robbery, and on the second count the jury found them guilty of aiding and abetting each other in the discharge of a pistol during an armed robbery. See id. The district court based the sentences for the second-count convictions on 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1)(A)(iii), a federal sentence enhancement law requiring a minimum of ten extra years (120 months) in prison for firing a gun during a violent crime. See id. at 1229. Sentence enhancement laws are not a basis for conviction; rather, they are laws by which already-convicted individuals may receive additional time in prison to reflect the particular way a given crime was performed. See id. at 1229. The district court sentenced Dean to 100 months in prison for count one and 120 consecutive months for count two. See id. at 1227. Lopez was sentenced to 78 months on count one and 120 consecutive months for count two. See id.
Dean and Lopez appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, arguing that 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1)(A)(iii)-the sentence enhancement law imposing a longer prison sentence due to the pistol discharge-did not apply to them because Dean did not intend to fire the pistol. See id. at 1229. Although the Eleventh Circuit acknowledged that trial testimony suggested the discharge was probably an accident, it affirmed the convictions and sentencing, holding that the sentence enhancement law did not contain an intent element. See id. at 1226, 1229. Thus, it did not matter whether or not the pistol discharge was an accident, because the law applied without regard to Dean's intentions. See id. The Eleventh Circuit explained that § 924(c)(1)(A)(iii), as a sentence enhancement, "merely reflects factors that will enhance sentencing, not elements of an offense." Id. at 1229. Dean subsequently petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court for certiorari, which the Court granted on November 14, 2008.
The issue in this case is whether the federal sentence enhancement provision in 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1)(A)(iii), which dictates that a person who is convicted of a violent crime must be sentenced to at least ten additional years if a gun was discharged during the crime, applies if the defendant did not intend to fire the gun. Petitioner Christopher Michael Dean argues that a requirement of mens rea-criminal intent-applies to the sentence enhancement law, meaning that a prosecutor must prove that a defendant intended to fire the gun in order for a court to impose the additional ten-year sentence. See Brief for Petitioner, Christopher Michael Dean at 4. Respondent United States urges the Supreme Court to take a different interpretation, viewing § 924(c)(1)(A)(iii) as merely adjusting a sentence according to the level of a defendant's criminality, rather than as a separate offense which would require proof of criminal intent. See Brief for Respondent, United States at 6-7.
Amici curiae for Dean-the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, National Association of Federal Defenders, and Families Against Mandatory Minimums ("Dean's amici")-argue that the outcome of this case will negatively affect convicted individuals. See Brief of Amicus Curiae National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, National Association of Federal Defenders, and Families Against Mandatory Minimums in Support of Petitioner at 7. In the view of Dean's amici, sentence enhancements are "stigmatizing and punitive" because a defendant who receives a sentence enhancement appears more morally reprehensible than a defendant who does not receive a sentence enhancement. Id. In other words, Dean's amici worry that if courts do not require proof of criminal intent for sentence enhancements-and for any statute that "requires additional punishment based on conduct beyond that required for conviction of the offense"-courts could criminally punish defendants by way of a sentence enhancement for acts that they did not intend to perform. Id. Dean's amici believe that this possibility could interfere with the deeply entrenched general principle that a criminal act must be linked to criminal intent for the act to be punishable. See id.
The United States disagrees, however, cautioning that courts could interfere with settled criminal law if they require proof of intent for all sentence enhancements. See Brief for Respondent at 40. The United States predicts that the broad mens rea presumption that Dean's amici support would weaken enhanced punishment laws, and allow courts to routinely adjust sentences according to the circumstances of a given crime. See id. The United States argues that a decision adopting a broad mens rea presumption could particularly affect federal drug violations. For example, 21 U.S.C. § 860(a) allows for twice the maximum punishment than would otherwise be allowed for trafficking drugs within one thousand feet of a school, and federal circuit courts of appeals have uniformly held that the enhanced punishment applies whether or not a defendant knows that a school was nearby. In the view of the United States, a Supreme Court decision adopting a broad mens rea presumption would undermine this uniform judicial interpretation regarding drug violations, as well as that of other federal criminal statutes. See id. According to the United States, a broad mens rea presumption would negatively affect any law that permits additional punishment for defendants who engage in drug trafficking or another illegal act in a certain way or in a certain place. See id.
The issue in this case, intent, is at the heart of criminal law, and the Supreme Court's decision will clarify the degree to which courts require proof of intent to give convicted individuals extra prison time based on sentence enhancement statutes. The Court's decision will also address a doctrinal split in the federal circuit courts, which currently disagree on whether § 924(c)(1)(A)(iii) requires proof that the defendant intended to fire the gun. See United States v. Dean, 517 F.3d 1224, 1230 (2008). The U.S. Courts of Appeals for the Eleventh and Tenth Circuits have decided that the statute does not require additional proof of intent for the ten-year mandatory minimum sentence to be added. See id. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, on the other hand, has decided that prosecutors must prove that a defendant intended to shoot the gun in order for a court to impose the additional sentence. See id.
Overview of Arguments
Petitioner Christopher Michael Dean raises three main arguments that the sentence enhancement law in this case, 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1)(A)(iii), does not apply if a firearm was fired accidentally. See Brief for Petitioner, Christopher Michael Dean at 4. First, Dean argues that the wording of the statute requires that a discharge be intentional for the sentence enhancement to apply. See id. Second, Dean argues that the common-law principle of mens rea applies to § 924(c)(1)(A)(iii) and requires proof that a discharge was intentional to apply the ten-year minimum sentence extension. See id. Third, Dean argues that the rule of lenity requires the court to interpret the statute in Dean's favor. See id.
Respondent United States argues instead that the sentencing enhancement applies whether or not a discharge was accidental or intentional. See Brief for Respondent, United States at 6-7. The United States argues that § 924(c)(1)(A)(iii) is merely an adjustment in the level of punishment for an already-established crime, so it does not require the prosecution to prove criminal intent as it would have to prove if the sentence enhancement were a separate offense. See id. at 9. Lastly, the United States argues that the rule of lenity does not apply in this case because § 924(c)(1)(A)(iii) is unambiguous. See id. at 10.
Statutory Construction: Language and Legislative History of § 924(c)(1)(A)
A major point of disagreement between Dean and the United States is how the Supreme Court should interpret § 924(c)(1)(A)(iii). Both parties argue that the statute's plain language and its legislative record show Congress's intent in passing the law, and that the Supreme Court should follow that intent. See Brief for Petitioner at 5; Brief for Respondent at 7. Section 924(c)(1)(A) reads that:
"[A]ny person who, during and in relation to any crime of violence or drug trafficking crime[,] . . . uses or carries a firearm, or who, in furtherance of any such crime, possesses a firearm, shall, in addition to the punishment provided for such crime of violence or drug trafficking crime -
(i) be sentenced to a term of imprisonment of not less than 5 years;
(ii) if the firearm is brandished, be sentenced to a term of imprisonment of not less than 7 years; and
(iii) if the firearm is discharged, be sentenced to a term of imprisonment of not less than 10 years."
Dean begins his textual analysis of § 924(c)(1)(A) by arguing that Congress's inclusion of the phrase "in relation to" imposes a general mens rea requirement on all of the sentence enhancements in the statute. See Brief for Petitioner at 8. As a result, Dean contends, a court cannot lengthen a sentence under § 924(c)(1)(A)(iii) solely because a gun was accidentally fired; instead, a defendant must intend to fire a gun in order for a discharge to be "in relation to" the crime. See id.
The United States' view of § 924(c)(1)(A)(iii)'s language, however, is that the ten-year mandatory minimum sentence extension applies if a gun is discharged, plain and simple, regardless of who causes the discharge. See Brief for Respondent at 12. The United States also points to the structure of § 924(c)(1)(A)(iii) to argue that a discharge does not have to be intentional for the sentence enhancement to apply. See id. at 18-19. In another section of the statute, 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(4), "brandish" is defined as occurring "in order to intimidate" another person. Id. at 18. The United States argues that because the statute's drafters included an extra definition to clarify that a court must find intent in order to impose a sentence enhancement for brandishing a gun, the drafters' silence regarding "discharge" is "significant." Id. at 19. According to the United States, this disparity between the existence of an intent definition for brandishing and the lack of an intent definition for discharge means that a court can impose sentence enhancements for gun discharges without a finding of intent. See id.
The United States further argues that the legislative record surrounding § 924(c)(1)(A)(iii) indicates that Congress meant the sentence enhancement to apply to accidental gun discharges because the lawmakers were concerned about the higher safety risk when a person carries a loaded gun. See id. at 21-22. The United States suggests that someone who wants to avoid the possibility of accidental discharge can simply leave a gun unloaded or engage its safety lock. See id. at 22. Additionally, the United States argues that Congress's history of drafting the statute shows that Congress considered and rejected language that would have created a more explicit mens rea requirement. See id. at 25-26.
Dean, on the other hand, argues that the sentence enhancement statute § 924(c)(1)(A)(iii) has always included some form of intent requirement, and that courts have historically interpreted the statute to include an intent requirement. See Brief for Petitioner at 15-18. Dean also points to legislative history to argue that Congress purposefully included the phrase "in relation to" to establish a mens rea requirement for each of the prohibited acts in § 924(c)(1)(A). Id. at 25. Thus, Dean argues that Congress used the words "in relation to" to establish that the extra ten-year minimum sentence extension could only apply when an offender knowingly discharged a firearm. Id.
Comparing § 924(c)(1)(A)(iii) to Common-Law Mens Rea: Does A Mens Rea Presumption Apply to Sentencing Factors?
Dean argues that another reason why the sentence enhancement should not apply to accidental discharges is because of the common-law doctrine of mens rea. See Brief for Petitioner at 25-26. According to Dean, the mens rea doctrine dictates that a criminal statute requires proof of criminal intent unless Congress has given a "clear statement" that proof of intent is not required. See id. Dean argues that Congress has not given such a statement here. See id. at 27. In fact, Dean contends that a congressional report regarding § 924(c)(1)(A)(iii) referred to Supreme Court cases discussing a presumption of mens rea. See id. Furthermore, Dean claims that the congressional report indicates that Congress intended to include a mens rea presumption in the statute. See id.
The United States, however, argues that the common-law mens rea presumption does not apply here because sentencing factors are not a criminal act and therefore do not result in criminal liability for a new offense. See Brief for Respondent at 31. Rather, a sentencing factor merely accounts for a special way the basic crime was carried out. See id. The United States also criticizes Dean's common-law argument by arguing that the Supreme Court has only found a common-law mens rea requirement for offense elements, not sentence enhancements. See id. at 34.
In response, Dean asserts that the Supreme Court has never excluded sentence enhancement provisions from the mens rea presumption. See Brief for Petitioner at 29-30. Dean further argues that the common law rule of strict construction requires courts to view all criminal statutes, including § 924(c)(1)(A)(iii), as narrowly as possible in line with Congress's intentions. See id. at 31-32.
Rule of Lenity
Dean also argues that the rule of lenity, which requires courts to interpret ambiguous criminal statutes in favor of defendants, applies here as well. See Brief for Petitioner at 36-37. According to Dean, the rule of lenity applies in this case because § 924(c)(1)(A)(iii) could be interpreted in different ways, and therefore, the Court should interpret the statute to require proof that the discharge was intentional for the sentence enhancement to apply. See id. at 37-38. The United States counters that no ambiguity exists in the statute, so the rule of lenity cannot apply in favor of Dean. See Brief for Respondent at 42-43. The United States concludes that no ambiguity exists because of the statute's plain language and because the common-law presumption of mens rea cannot "create ambiguity" in an already-clear statute. Id. at 43.
The outcome of this case depends on whether the Supreme Court decides that proof of criminal intent is required for courts to impose sentence enhancements. Dean argues that defendants should not be given additional punishment under sentence enhancement laws unless prosecutors, as they must for most offenses, prove criminal intent. The United States argues that sentence enhancements should not be treated as offenses, and thus do not require proof of intent. The Supreme Court's decision will clarify a disagreement among the federal circuit courts on the issue, allowing for greater uniformity across the country in the application of federal sentencing laws. The Supreme Court's decision could also affect the amount of time that criminal defendants will spend in prison as a result of whether or not enhancements can apply when a defendant did not intend to perform the act prohibited in a sentence enhancement statute.
Prepared by: Kaci White
Edited by: Courtney Zanocco
- Chart showing federal sentence enhancements under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c), from Families Against Mandatory Minimums
- United States Sentencing Commission
- The Sentencing Project
- United States Department of Justice