The US Supreme Court [official website; JURIST news archive] on Monday ruled [opinion, PDF] unanimously in Abbot v. United States [Cornell LII backgrounder] that, in construing a federal statute imposing mandatory minimum sentences for drug trafficking crimes committed with guns, the minimum sentence contained in the statute applies unless another statute imposes a longer minimum sentence for the weapons charge. Defendants argued that their respective 15- and 20-year prison sentences were not dictated by 18 USC § 924(c) [text], which provides that "any person who, during and in relation to any crime of violence or drug trafficking crime ... uses or carries a firearm" shall be sentenced to no less than five years in prison in addition to any sentence for the underlying crime. Both defendants received five-year extensions to their additional sentences of 10 and 15 years for carrying guns while committing crimes involving drug trafficking. They argued that the trial courts failed to apply the "except" clause of § 924(c), which makes the provision applicable, "[e]xcept to the extent that a greater minimum sentence is otherwise provided by this subsection or by any other provision of law." The defendants argued that the "except" clause should apply if any of the charges on which they were convicted or charges on which they were convicted stemming from the criminal transaction carried a longer minimum sentence. The court, rejecting that argument, agreed with the government that the "except" clause applies only "if another provision of the United States Code mandates a punishment for using, carrying, or possessing a firearm in connection with a drug trafficking crime or crime of violence, and that minimum sentence is longer than the punishment applicable under § 924(c)." The court explained:
We hold, in accord with the courts below, and in line with the majority of the Courts of Appeals, that a defendant is subject to a mandatory, consecutive sentence for a § 924(c) conviction, and is not spared from that sentence by virtue of receiving a higher mandatory minimum on a different count of conviction. Under the "except" clause as we comprehend it, a § 924(c) offender is not subject to stacked sentences for violating § 924(c). If he possessed, brandished, and discharged a gun, the mandatory penalty would be 10 years, not 22. He is, however, subject to the highest mandatory minimum specified for his conduct in § 924(c), unless another provision of law directed to conduct proscribed by § 924(c) imposes an even greater mandatory minimum.The court noted that Congress passed the current version of § 924(c) to increase penalties for crimes committed with guns and that the defendants' construction of the law would decrease sentences compared to the previous version of the statute. Justice Elena Kagan did not participate in the case.
The court heard oral arguments [transcript, PDF; JURIST report] in October when it opened its current session. In July 2009, the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit [official website], held, in an unpublished opinion [text, PDF], that the trial court properly applied § 924(c) to Carlos Gould who pleaded guilty to conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine base and possession and possession of a firearm in furtherance of a drug trafficking crime. In February 2009, the US Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit [official website] ruled [opinion, PDF] that the trial court correctly applied § 924(c) in sentencing Kevin Abbot to twenty years in prison after police arrested him during a 2004 raid on an abandoned property that contained drugs, drug paraphernalia and two handguns.