Thursday, April 30, 2009

Oops! Accidental gunshot gets bank robber ten year minimum sentence

So says the Supreme Court, in Dean v. United States, decided yesterday in a 7-2 opinion. Justices Stevens and Breyer, both writing separately, dissented. SCOTUSwiki has a good summary here.

In the case, the bank robber had argued that he should not be subject to the mandatory minimum ten year sentence for use of a firearm during his bank robbery, because the gun discharge was accidental.

From Chief Justice Roberts pithy summary of the facts:
Accidents happen. Sometimes they happen to individuals committing crimes with loaded guns. The question here is whether extra punishment Congress imposed for the discharge of a gun during certain crimes applies when the gun goes off accidentally.

Title 18 U. S. C. §924(c)(1)(A) criminalizes using or carrying a firearm during and in relation to any violent or drug trafficking crime, or possessing a firearm in furtherance of such a crime. An individual convicted of that offense receives a 5-year mandatory minimum sentence, in addition to the punishment for the underlying crime. §924(c)(1)(A)(i). The mandatory minimum increases to 7years “if the firearm is brandished” and to 10 years “if the firearm is discharged.” §§924(c)(1)(A)(ii), (iii).

In this case, a masked man entered a bank, waved a gun, and yelled at everyone to get down. He then walked behind the teller counter and started removing money from the teller stations. He grabbed bills with his left hand, holding the gun in his right. At one point, he reached over a teller to remove money from her drawer. As he was collecting the money, the gun discharged, leaving a bullet hole in the partition between two stations.The robber cursed and dashed out of the bank. Witnesses later testified that he seemed surprised that the gun had gone off. No one was hurt. [citations omitted] ... Slip op. at 1-2.

The majority held that the statute does not require intent to fire the gun, and thus the ten year mandatory minimum applies:
Section 924(c)(1)(A)(iii) requires no separate proof of intent. The 10-year mandatory minimum applies if a gun is discharged in the course of a violent or drug trafficking crime, whether on purpose or by accident. Slip op. at 9. ...

Chief Justice Roberts has this friendly advice for bank robbers who use guns:
... An individual who brings a loaded weapon to commit a crime runs the risk that the gun will discharge accidentally. A gunshot in such circumstances—whether accidental or intended—increases the risk that others will be injured, that people will panic, or that violence (with its own danger to those nearby) will be used in response. Those criminals wishing to avoid the penalty for an inadvertent discharge can lock or unload the firearm,handle it with care during the underlying violent or drug trafficking crime, leave the gun at home, or—best yet—avoid committing the felony in the first place. [emphasis added] Slip op. at 8.


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