In determining a sentence for the predicate felony underlying § 924(c), what is the scope of a trial court’s discretion in considering the statute’s mandatory consecutive sentence?
In this case, the Supreme Court will decide the scope of a trial court’s discretion in considering the mandatory consecutive sentence under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) (mandating a minimum sentence if a firearm is used in furtherance of a violent crime) when determining a sentence for the predicate offense. In deciding whether the lower courts erred by not further reducing the petitioner’s sentence for his predicate offense, the Court will look at whether United States v. Pepper (holding that 18 U.S.C. § 3661 implied that a sentencing court should consider all relevant information about a defendant when determining an appropriate sentence) overruled United States v. Hatcher (holding that a trial court could not impose a mere one-day sentence for crimes that were not subject to a mandatory minimum just because the § 924(c)-mandated sentence had been 300 months). Petitioner Levon Dean, Jr. argues that trial courts should be given full discretion to consider all possible information and that Congressional support of a shorter sentence is evinced by the text of the Sentencing Reform Act of 1986. The United States, as respondent, counters that the Sentencing Reform Act cannot be used simply to lower the aggregate sentence and that Congress specifically intended to prohibit lighter sentences because of the unique dangers of a § 924(c) violation. If the Court rules that Pepper overruled Hatcher, this will give trial courts more discretion in fashioning shorter aggregate sentences for defendants who used a firearm in furtherance of a violent crime.
Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties
Does the Supreme Court’s decision in Pepper v. United States―holding that a judge can adjust sentencing guidelines downward if the defendant is rehabilitated after his initial sentencing―overrule United States v. Hatcher and other Eighth Circuit opinions that limit the district court’s discretion in determining the appropriate sentence for the felony serving as the basis for a conviction for possessing a firearm in furtherance of a violent crime under 18 U.S.C. §924(c)?
On April 15, 2013, brothers Levon Dean, Jr. (“Dean”) and Jamal Dean (“Jamal”), as well as some friends, were involved in an armed robbery of a drug dealer. On that day, Jessica Cabbell, a prostitute, had a “date” planned with J.R., a methamphetamine and marijuana dealer, at a motel in Sioux City, Iowa. According to Cabbell’s friend Sarah Berg, J.R. owed Berg $400 which Berg wished to collect. The two brothers, Berg, and friend Reggie Galvin accompanied Cabbell on her date to confront J.R. Once at the hotel, Jamal pulled a gun on J.R., demanded money, and later hit J.R. on the head with the gun; afterwards, Berg stole J.R.’s car, phone, and drugs, and everyone fled the scene. On April 24, Dean and his brother robbed another drug dealer, C.B., at gunpoint, stealing cash, drugs, and other paraphernalia. Jamal also hit C.B. with his gun. The Deans were eventually arrested in May of 2013.
The Deans were charged on eleven counts, most notably committing a robbery while in possession of a firearm in furtherance of a crime of violence or drug-trafficking crime in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c). The district court sentenced Dean to 400 months in prison, including a 360-month mandatory minimum consecutive sentence for the § 924(c) offense. Without this mandatory minimum, Dean’s Guideline range would have been 84–105 months for the remaining counts. Dean requested that the court sentence him to one day for these remaining counts because of the harshness of the mandatory minimum, but the court followed the precedent set in United States v. Hatcher (which held that a district court had been unreasonable in varying downward a sentence to one day for crimes not subject to a mandatory minimum only because the mandatory sentence had been 300 months) and instead gave Dean a downward variance of 40 months to run consecutively to the 360-month mandatory sentence. The district court sentenced Jamal to life in prison, which was an upward variance based on a Sentencing Guidelines range of 140–175 months in addition to the mandatory consecutive minimums of seven years and twenty-five years under two § 924(c) counts.
Dean and Jamal both appealed; one aspect of their appeals was the reasonableness of their sentences. The Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed the district court’s upwards variance in Jamal’s lifetime sentence and held that the sentence was reasonable considering Jamal’s young age and “unusually active and violent criminal history.” Dean argued that the district court had erred when it ruled that it had no discretion to impose lower guidelines based on the harshness of mandatory minimums. The Court of Appeals disagreed; it held that the district court had given a reasonable sentence and had correctly ruled on its inability to vary its sentencing because there was no notable difference between Hatcher and this case.
THE SENTENCING REFORM ACT
Petitioner Levon Dean, Jr. (“Dean”) argues that a court, in some cases, must consider a defendant’s mandatory § 924(c) sentence before determining the proper sentence for his or her underlying offense. Dean points to the plain language of the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 (“SRA”) and 18 U.S.C. § 3661 to support his claims. Dean contends that the SRA fostered sentencing guidelines under 18 U.S.C. § 3553 that are applicable to the decision at hand. Under § 3553(a), the district court bears the obligation to impose sufficient sentences, but not greater than necessary, to comply with four specific purposes. These purpose include: (1) furnishing sufficient deterrence to criminal conduct; (2) shielding the public from future crimes by the defendant; (3) reflecting the offense’s seriousness, fostering respect for the law, and granting adequate punishment for the offense; and (4) providing the defendant with training, medical care or other correctional treatment in the most effective manner. Dean argues that a sentencing judge’s duties under § 3553(a) necessarily require him to account for a defendant’s aggregate sentence, including any § 924(c) mandatory minimums. Dean supports his claim by raising the fact that further deterrence will not be achieved through a plausible 30- or 105-year sentence, nor will a longer sentence protect the public any more from future crimes by the defendant. Pointing to statistics that suggest marginal benefits for public protection as a defendant ages and illustrating a non-deterrent effect from adding seven or nine years to the defendant’s established aggregate 30-year sentence, Dean attempts to illustrate the necessity of considering the length of a § 924(c) mandatory sentence in determining the effectiveness of the underlying sentence.
Respondent, the United States of America (“the United States”), argues that the SRA prohibits a court from lowering the sentence for a predicate offense solely to offset one’s prison time. The United States agrees that a defendant’s total length of imprisonment resulting from multiple prison terms is determined using § 3551(a) considerations of “retribution, deterrence, incapacitation, and rehabilitation.” The United States argues, however, that a court must analyze each individual sentence under the § 3551(a) scheme instead of the aggregate sentence. In addition, the United States argues that Congress eliminated the sentencing court’s power to determine a felon’s total aggregate sentence under § 924(c). By prohibiting the sentencing court from making terms of imprisonment that run concurrently with other prison terms, the United States claims that Congress withdrew a sentencing judge’s § 3564 and § 3553(a) authority to evaluate multiple prison terms when determining a felon’s aggregate sentence.
Dean claims that § 3661’s explicit barring of limitations placed on information that a court may consider when imposing an adequate sentence grants the court broad discretion to consider a defendant’s § 924(c) mandatory sentence. Because § 3661 prohibits the withholding of information related to the background, character, and conduct of a convicted person, Dean argues that the statute unambiguously authorizes the courts to account for mandatory minimums before determining one’s aggregate sentence. Dean argues that because Pepper v. United States, 562 U.S. 476 (2011), clarified the interpretation of § 3661, it effectively overruled United States v. Hatcher, 501 F.3d 1239 (8th Cir. 2007); thus, Hatcher is no longer good law.
In contrast, the United States contends that while §924(c) does not restrict the information available to sentencing judges, it does limit the way in which judges may exercise their sentencing discretion. The United States claims that a sentencing court is not authorized to reduce one’s predicate offense sentence solely because the duration of a prison term for a §924(c) conviction would produce a total aggregate length of imprisonment that is more than necessary considering § 3553(a) factors.
THE PURPOSE OF § 924(c)
Dean argues that § 924(c)’s clear statutory intent was to merely limit a court’s discretion as to whether sentences can run consecutively or concurrently.Dean argues that because § 924(c) is silent on whether mandatory sentences are prohibited from consideration (in making further sentencing determinations), it must be permissible to take these mandatory sentences into account. Dean claims that Congress never intended for § 924(c) to strip a district judge’s sentencing discretion relating to an underlying offense. Dean points to former Congresses that shaped today’s § 924(c) to identify how trends of harsher mandatory-minimum sentences have been met with additional judicial discretion for underlying conviction sentences. Dean contends that it is an established district court practice to account for the mandatory minimum in creating the consecutive sentence for an underlying offense. Anything contrary to this established precedent, Dean claims, would prompt congress to create an explicit exception to this default practice. Dean also argues that under the rule of lenity, if there are disputes as to whether the court may consider information relevant to a defendant’s sentence, the decision must weigh in favor of that defendant. This rule, created by United States v. Santos, 553 U.S. 507 (2008), asserts that where ambiguity exists the tie must go to the defendant. Because of the difficulty of interpreting § 924(c) as unambiguously barring a court from considering a defendant’s mandatory minimum sentence, and because neither § 924(c)’s text nor structure resolve the ambiguities, Dean argues that a court should evaluate information relating to a defendant’s mandatory sentence in determining a proper underlying sentence.
The United States argues that § 924(c)’s text and function prohibit courts from limiting a felon’s sentence for a predicate offense below any length that would be adequate if a defendant were not also subject to punishment under § 924 (c). The United States points to § 924(c)’s unique status as a “combination” offense that adds to a federal predicate offense, Congress’s instruction to implement mandatory sentences in addition to predicate offense punishments, and Congress’s directive to run the term of imprisonment under § 924(c) consecutively to any other term of imprisonment, to support its claim that § 924(c)’s explicit text and functions prohibit the lowering of defendant’s sentence. The United States also contends that evaluating § 924(c)’s drafting history sheds light on Congress’s intent to eliminate discretionary elements of § 924(c) that rendered it ineffective. In support of this claim, the United States points to President Ronald Reagan’s 1984 Amendment to curtail criminal activity threatening the nation, that required the imposition of an additional imprisonment term even when the predicate offense had its own term enhancement.
CONGRESSIONAL INTENT AND PUBLIC POLICY
According to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (“NACDL”), Congressional intent (or lack thereof) supports Dean’s appeal for a decreased sentence outside the statutory minimum and can be evaluated in two distinct ways: first, according to the most recent Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, Congress has continued to allow judicial discretion in considering a wide range of information in order to impose a sentence. Second, the NACDL states that there is no evidence of Congressional intent to allow an abrogation of judicial discretion in the sentencing context; however, evidence of such intent would be required in order to depart from the longstanding tradition of judicial discretion. Thus, argues the NACDL, without a showing of clear Congressional intent, the language of § 924(c) should not be read to mean that the underlying offense—in this case, Dean’s 40-month consecutive sentence—may not get a downward variance.
The United States asserts that although the sentencing court has the discretion to run individual sentences either concurrently or consecutively, the sentence must be “sufficient, but not greater than necessary” in order to advance goals like justice, deterrence, and public safety. Despite this statutorily-allowed discretion, the United States argues that an analysis of Congressional intent prohibits a concurrent imprisonment sentence in the case of § 924(c) violations. For example, if a defendant is convicted of both a violent or drug-trafficking crime and a § 924(c) violation for possessing a firearm in furtherance of the crime, Congress has already considered the additional danger posed by a firearm vis-à-vis § 924(c) in the criminal act and prohibited sentences from running concurrently. Additionally, the United States maintains that this intent is clearly recognized by nearly all courts of appeals because those courts have concluded that a sentencing court may not reduce a sentence based on Sentencing Guidelines just to reduce the aggregate sentence decided by Guidelines and a consecutive, mandatory-minimum sentence.
JUDICIAL DISCRETION AS A ‘TIME-HONORED PRINCIPLE’
The NACDL explains that thousands of individuals like Dean receive mandatory minimum sentences under § 924(c) each year, but as a result of Hatcher, district judges not limited to the Eighth Circuit are frequently forced to impose “unjust and unreasonable” sentences based on mandatory minimum Sentencing Guidelines. Such prolonged and thus needlessly harsh sentences are given even when the judges think a reasonable sentence would require much less time. The NACDL contends that the American judiciary has a tradition of “informed and principled judicial discretion” in criminal sentencing, and thus judicial discretion and statutory interpretation both should affect the understanding and interpretation of § 924(c).To this end, the NACDL explains that judges have been and should continue to be entrusted with the power to base their sentencing after consideration of any and all information available to ensure that the punishment would “fit the offender and not merely the crime.”
The United States does agree that sentencing courts have discretion and should consider information concerning the defendant’s history and characteristics when imposing a sentence. The United States, however, claims that what § 924(c) aims to do is to ensure that sentencing courts need not consider enhancing a sentence suggested in the Guidelines just because a firearm was involved; § 924(c) specifically accounts for the firearm involvement and courts are left to consider only the predicate offense itself and the appropriate sentencing that would result.
- Lacey Louwagie, Justices Take Up Sentence-Reduction Case, Courthouse News Service (Oct. 28, 2016)
- U.S. Attorney’s Office, N.D. Iowa, Two Sioux City Brothers Sentenced to Lengthy Prison Terms for Violent Crime Spree, Department of Justice (Jan. 23, 2015)