Supreme Court rules on mandatory minimum sentencing for federal gun crimes

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website; JURIST news archive] on Monday ruled [opinion, PDF] unanimously in United States v. O'Brien [Cornell LII backgrounder] that the question of whether a firearm is a machine gun must be proved to the jury beyond a reasonable doubt and is not a sentencing factor to be considered by the judge by a preponderance of the evidence. The court held that the type of firearm used in perpetrating a crime was an element of the crime under mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines. The government had attempted to extend the sentence of the respondents under 18 USC s. 924(c) [text], which sets a mandatory minimum sentence of 30 years for using a machine gun during a crime. The US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit ruled [opinion, PDF] that such a determination should be made by a jury. In doing so, the court relied on statutory interpretation outlined by the Supreme Court in Castillo v. United States [opinion, PDF; Cornell LII backgrounder] in interpreting a previous version of s. 924(c), creating a circuit split. The First Circuit held that the amendment to the statute had not altered the holding of Castillo. In upholding the decision below, Justice Anthony Kennedy explained:

Th[e] structural or stylistic change ... does not provide a "clear indication" that Congress meant to alter its treatment of machineguns as an offense element. A more logical explanation for the restructuring is that it broke up a lengthy principal paragraph, which exceeded 250 words[,] ... into a more readable statute. This is in step with current legislative drafting guidelines, which advise drafters to break lengthy statutory provisions into separate subsections that can be read more easily. ... These points are overcome, however, by the substantial weight of the other Castillo factors and the principle that Congress would not enact so significant a change without a clear indication of its purpose to do so. The evident congressional purpose was to amend the statute to ... make [it] more readable but not otherwise to alter the substance of the statute. The analysis and holding of Castillo control this case. The machinegun provision in [s.] 924(c)(1)(B)(ii) is an element of an offense.
Justice John Paul Stevens filed a concurring opinion, and Justice Clarence Thomas filed an opinion concurring in the judgment only.

Respondents Martin O'Brien and Arthur Burgess made a failed attempt to rob an armored car in 2005, using a firearm that the FBI alleged had been modified to operate as a fully-automatic weapon. The court heard oral arguments [transcript, PDF; JURIST report] in February. Counsel for the petitioner, the US government, argued that the language of the statute requires a judge to make the determination. Counsel for the respondents argued that such a result is foreclosed by the Supreme Court's statutory interpretation jurisprudence.

 

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