Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Discharge of Firearm Need Not Be Intentional to Trigger 10-Year Mandatory Minimum Under 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)*

Dean v. United States, No. 08-5274 (U.S. Apr. 29, 2009)

Title 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1)(A)(iii) requires a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years if the firearm was "discharged." The question presented, which had divided the circuits, was whether the 10-year mandatory minimum requires that the defendant discharge the firearm intentionally.

Chief Justice Roberts, writing for a seven-Justice majority, answers that question "no." Even an accidential discharge suffices. The analysis, which I'll not summarize, relies entirely on the text and structure of the statute.

Justice Stevens dissented. Relying on both the structure and the legislative history of the statute, he concluded that "Congress intended §924(c)(1)(A)(iii) to apply only to intentional discharges."

Justice Breyer also dissented. Conceding the "strong arguments" in favor of the majority's holding, Justice Breyer nevertheless concluded that the rule of lenity weighed against it. Intriguingly, he argued that the rule of lentity has "special force in the context of mandatory minimum provisions[,]" in light of the "interpretive assymetries" that arise. That is, if lenity is applied and intentional discharge is required, a sentencing judge could still impose a sentence of 10 years or more. But if lenity is not applied, and even accidential discharges trigger a 10-year mandatory minimum, then a sentencing judge is bound to impose a sentence harsher than Congress would have intended.

Of course, Justice Breyer's take on the rule of lenity did not carry the day. But the rule did not escape the majority's mention. Although not directly addressing Justice Breyer's dissent, the majority opinion reminds that not just any ambiguity suffices to trigger the rule of lenity. Instead, lenity only kicks in when there is a "grievous ambiguity or uncertainty" in the statute.

*(Post title edited to correct mistaken reference to the ACCA.)

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Anonymous said...

I would like your take on Arizona v. Gant, which has great importance in traffic stop cases, especially those involving the state authorities.

4/30/2009 12:43:00 PM  

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