RESPONDENT: United States
LOCATION: AmSouth Bank
DOCKET NO.: 08-5274
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2006-2009)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit
CITATION: 556 US (2009)
GRANTED: Nov 14, 2008
ARGUED: Mar 04, 2009
DECIDED: Apr 29, 2009
Deanne E. Maynard - Assistant to the Solicitor General, Department of Justice, argued the cause for the respondent
Scott J. Forster - argued the cause for the petitioner
Facts of the case
A federal district court convicted both Christopher Michael Dean and Ricardo Curtis Lopez in part for the discharge of a pistol during an armed robbery in violation of 18 U.S.C. Section 924(c)(1)(A)(iii), a sentencing enhancement statute. They appealed arguing that Section 924(c)(1)(A)(iii) only applies to the intentional discharge of a firearm.
The United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit held that Section 924(c)(1)(A)(iii) does not have an intent requirement. It explained, "The mere discharge of a firearm during any crime of violence… even accidental, is subject to the sentencing enhancement", requiring ten additional years imprisonment.
Does 18 U.S.C. Section 924(c)(1)(A)(iii) require proof that the discharge of a firearm was intentional?
Media for Dean v. United StatesAudio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 04, 2009 in Dean v. United States
Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - April 29, 2009 in Dean v. United States
John G. Roberts, Jr.:
I have the opinion of the Court this morning in Case 08-5274, Dean verus United States.
This is the case of the bumbling bank robber.
Christopher Dean entered a bank, waved a gun, yelled for everyone to get down and started removing money from the teller stations.
He grabbed bills with his left hand holding the gun in his right.
As he was reaching over a teller to gather more money, the gun went off.
Dean curst and dashed out of the bank.
Witnesses later testified that he seemed surprised that the gun had gone off, no one was hurt.
Congress had made it a crime to use or carry a firearm during and in relation to any violent or drug trafficking crime.
An individual convicted of that offense receives a five-year mandatory minimum sentence, in addition to the punishment for the crime he committed using the gun.
The mandatory minimum increase was to seven years if the firearm is brandished and to ten years “if the firearm is discharged.”
The question is whether a criminal receives the extra three years between brandishing and discharged for discharge of a firearm, if the discharge is an accident, we hold that he does.
The statute applies, “if the firearm is discharged.”
It does not require that the discharged be done knowingly or intentionally.
The passive voice is discharged, focuses on an event that occurs without respect to any actors intent or culpability.
Now, Dean argues that the provision should be limited to intentional discharges because there is a presumption that the Government must prove that a defendant intended to engage in criminal conduct.
Well, it is unusual to impose punishment for purely accidental conduct.
It is not unusual to punish individuals for the unintended consequences of their unlawful acts.
Here, the defendant is already guilty of unlawful conduct twice over, a violent or drug trafficking offense and the use of a firearm in the course of that offense.
The fact that the discharge may be accidental does not mean that the defendant is blameless.
If you carry a gun to rob a bank and it goes off, you're responsible for the consequences.
A gunshot, whether accidental or intended, increases the risk that others will be injured, that people will panic, or that violence will be used in response.
It also traumatizes bystanders as it did here.
Those criminals, who want to avoid the penalty for an inadvertent discharge, could lock or unload the firearm, handle it with care during their violent crime, leave the gun at home or best yet, avoid committing the felony in the first place.
The mandatory minimum applies if a gun is discharged in the course of a violent or drug trafficking crime, whether on purpose or by accident.
That was the holding of the Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit below and the judgment of that Court is affirmed.
Justices Stevens and Breyer have filed descending opinions.