McNeill v. United States - Oral Argument - April 25, 2011

McNeill v. United States

Media for McNeill v. United States

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 06, 2011 in McNeill v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 25, 2011 in McNeill v. United States

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

We will hear argument next this morning in Case 10-5258, McNeill v. United States.

Mr. Gordon.

Stephen C. Gordon:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

When this Court construes a statute, the words of the statute matter, the purpose of the statute matters, and the results produced by that construction matter.

When Congress defined in the Armed Career Criminal Act a 10 years or more is prescribed by law, it meant for Federal courts to look to the law presently in effect in that State.

This is the most natural reading of the statute, and words matter.

It is also consistent with ACCA's purpose, which is punish the Federal firearms offense, and if we are going to punish--

Sonia Sotomayor:

Counsel, I -- I have just one problem, which is under your theory, I understand it, if a State increases a penalty, makes what would have been a penalty for a misdemeanor now a felony, then that defendant is a career criminal, by your logic.

Stephen C. Gordon:

--Uh--

Sonia Sotomayor:

So the person who thought that at the time they committed the crime they were committing a low-level crime is now a felon; is that your theory of the case?

Stephen C. Gordon:

--If -- if a State were to increase a penalty -- say from originally it was 5 years, increased it to 10 years, the defendant was convicted at a time when it was 5 years -- if the legislature increased the penalty, if the defendant possessed a firearm, yes, he would be facing--

Sonia Sotomayor:

What -- what -- what logic do you think there is in that, why Congress would want to punish someone now for -- for criminal activity that they thought was lesser, and the State thought was lesser, at an earlier time, less reprehensible?

Stephen C. Gordon:

--Because the purpose of the Armed Career Criminal Act is not to enhance a sentence because of the prior conviction.

It is because the Federal firearm offense at the time it was committed is more serious based on -- based on its repetitive nature, as this Court has said.

So therefore looking to, when the defendant commits the offense, what his status is at that time under the law we think makes sense and is consonant with the purpose of what ACCA is trying to do.

ACCA is not trying to punish the State offense at the time.

And of course the converse, Your Honor, is that by adopting the government's reading, is individuals who at a time committed an offense when a State at that time viewed an offense as more serious but now has changed its view of the offense, does not view it as being as serious, that person also would receive a 15-year mandatory minimum sentence.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

Mr. Gordon, the State does regard it -- it does -- prescribe 10 years for this defendant because it's made a -- made the change not retroactive.

So a maximum of 10 years is prescribed for Mr. McNeill, and all others who committed the offense prior to the change in law.

So it is -- it is the State's current position that for this defendant the maximum is 10 years.

Stephen C. Gordon:

Yes, Justice Ginsburg, that's correct.

Where we fundamentally disagree with the government and with the Fourth Circuit is on the significance of retroactivity.

We -- the statute requires -- or the statute directs us to look at the penalty that is prescribed for the offense, the offense in its generic context.

It -- it is not about what the circumstances of the defendant were that produced the particular conviction for him.

No one who commits the trafficking offenses that Mr. McNeill committed today is going to be facing a 10-year sentence.

It's not going to happen to anyone who commits the offense from today forward.

And we think that is where the statute directs us to look: What is the penalty for the generic offense?

Samuel A. Alito, Jr.:

Suppose -- what would happen in this situation?

A defendant is convicted under a State statute that says that anybody who sells between 1 ounces -- 1 ounce and 5 ounces of a particular controlled substance is guilty of a felony and may be punished by imprisonment for a certain amount of time.

And then the State repeals that provision altogether and enacts a new provision that says anybody who sells between 1 ounces -- 1 ounce and 8 ounces is punishable by a certain penalty.