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April 3, 2017

Supreme Court unanimously rules for defendant and district court sentencing discretion in Dean

I am intrigued and surprised and ultimately pleased that a unanimous Supreme Court this morning emphasized the significance of federal district court sentencing discretion through its ruling in Dean v. United States, No. 15-9260 (April 3, 2017) (available here). The Chief Justice authored a relatively brief opinion for the Court in Dean that was obviously convincing enough to get even the most pro-prosecution Justices comfortable with ruling against the prosecution.  Here are some key parts of the opinion, starting with the first paragraph that signals where the rest is headed:

Congress has made it a separate offense to use or possess a firearm in connection with a violent or drug trafficking crime. 18 U. S. C. §924(c). That separate firearm offense carries a mandatory minimum sentence of five years for the first conviction and 25 years for a second. Those sentences must be in addition to and consecutive to the sentence for the underlying predicate offense. The question presented is whether, in calculating the sentence for the predicate offense, a judge must ignore the fact that the defendant will serve the mandatory minimums imposed under §924(c)....

The §3553(a) factors are used to set both the length of separate prison terms and an aggregate prison term comprising separate sentences for multiple counts of conviction. Under §3582 a court, “in determining whether to impose a term of imprisonment, and, if a term of imprisonment is to be imposed, in determining the length of the term, shall consider the factors set forth in section 3553(a).”...

As a general matter, the foregoing provisions permit a court imposing a sentence on one count of conviction to consider sentences imposed on other counts....

The Government speaks of Congress’s intent to prevent district courts from bottoming out sentences for predicate §924(c) offenses whenever they think a mandatory minimum under §924(c) is already punishment enough.  But no such intent finds expression in the language of §924(c).  That language simply requires any mandatory minimum under §924(c) to be imposed “in addition to” the sentence for the predicate offense, and to run consecutively to that sentence.  Nothing in those requirements prevents a sentencing court from considering a mandatory minimum under §924(c) when calculating an appropriate sentence for the predicate offense.

April 3, 2017 at 10:20 AM | Permalink


It's all so obvious; handled in under 10 pages.

Posted by: Joe | Apr 3, 2017 10:23:26 AM

This goes back to what Hugo Black said decades ago: The judge sentences the whole person. The application of the "parsimony principle" here, where the judge considers the justness of the whole sentencing package in light of the purposes of punishment, does just that. Yes, good to see a unanimous SCOTUS for a change!

Posted by: Stan Adelman | Apr 3, 2017 1:16:21 PM

SCOTUS's first mention of "parsimony principle."

Posted by: J | Apr 3, 2017 2:40:42 PM

"good to see a unanimous SCOTUS for a change"

There have been some; the eight justice bench has found ways to agree in particular.

Posted by: Joe | Apr 3, 2017 6:06:51 PM

A good day for the good guys.

Posted by: Mark M. | Apr 4, 2017 12:15:53 AM

Looks like the 8th Circuit lost the forest for the trees.

Posted by: federalist | Apr 4, 2017 8:12:49 AM

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