United States v. Gonzales

PETITIONER: United States
LOCATION: Attorney General Office

DOCKET NO.: 95-1605
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit

CITATION: 520 US 1 (1997)
ARGUED: Dec 11, 1996
DECIDED: Mar 03, 1997

Edward O. Bustamante - Argued the cause for the respondents
Miguel A. Estrada - Argued the cause for the petitioner

Facts of the case

Miguel Gonzales, Orlenis Hernandez Diaz, and Mario Perez were convicted in New Mexico state court on charges arising from their use of guns to holdup undercover officers during a drug sting. After they began to serve their state sentences, they were convicted by a District Court on federal drug and firearm charges related to the sting. Federal law requires a five-year prison sentence for carrying a gun while committing a crime. A Court of Appeals vacated the additional firearms sentences on the ground that they should have run concurrently with the state prison terms.


Can the federal mandatory five-year prison term for carrying a gun while committing a crime be served concurrently with a separate state sentence?

Media for United States v. Gonzales

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - December 11, 1996 in United States v. Gonzales

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument now in Number 95-1605, United States v. Miguel Gonzalez.

Mr. Estrada.

Miguel A. Estrada:

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

Section 924(c)(1) of title 18 provides for mandatory jail sentences for persons who use or carry a firearm during the commission of certain offenses.

The Tenth Circuit in this case held that a sentence imposed under section 924(c) by a Federal district court may be made to run concurrently with a State sentence that the defendant is already serving.

In our view, that is wrong for three reasons.

First and foremost, the language of the statute expressly forbids the imposition of a concurrent sentence.

Second, we think the court of appeals was wrong to imply a presumption that that prohibition refers solely to previously imposed Federal sentences, and finally, we think the Tenth Circuit was wrong to rely on a passage from the 1984 Senate committee report that accompanied the 1984 amendments to section 924(c).

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Mr. Estrada, do you take the position that section 924(c) requires the separate sentence given for that violation to run before any other sentence, or could it be required after any other sentence?

Just, what the statute refers to is running sentences concurrently, so is it okay to order its service after the expiration of a State court penalty?

Miguel A. Estrada:

Yes, Justice O'Connor, but let me back up.

Under the sentencing statutes that we have, how the sentence is administered is usually up to the Bureau of Prisons.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

And you don't take the position that it has to always be first?

Miguel A. Estrada:

No, and in many circumstances it will not be able to be first.

Anthony M. Kennedy:



Miguel A. Estrada:

In this case, for example, in order to give effect to both the statutory authority to make the drug sentences concurrent with the State terms and to the statutory mandate that the 924 sentence be consecutive, the Bureau of Prisons would have to run the Federal drug sentence first, concurrent with the State sentence, and to run the 924(c) sentence last, consecutive to both State and Federal sentences.

There was an assumption in the court of appeals view that that would not be so because it gave what we think was inordinate weight to its view of the Senate committee report, but that is, in fact, an error.

As a matter of the administration of the sentence, under section 3584(c), I believe, the Bureau of Prisons would treat the entire term imposed by the Federal court as a single administrative term that has several parts, and the part that would correspond to the Federal drug sentences in this case would be ordered... would be served concurrently with the existing State sentences.

The part that corresponds to section 924(c), as required by the plain language of the statute, would be made consecutive both to Federal sentences and to the State sentences that are already being served.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

Do the States have to go along with that?

I suppose this can get very complicated as to which is first.

In the... Number 1, can the Bureau of Prisons tell the States when their sentence is going to run in relation to the Federal sentence?

Miguel A. Estrada:


Anthony M. Kennedy:

Or is there some control on that discretion?

Miguel A. Estrada:

The State sentence is independent.

Section 924(c), like all Federal sentencing statutes, in our view speaks solely to a Federal question, how a Federal court imposing a Federal sentence for a Federal crime, may order the calculation of the Federal sentence.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

My question was, does the Bureau of Prisons have discretion to say in a particular case to the State, we're going to allow all the Federal sentences to run first, and then you can do whatever you want, or, we're going to require that part of our sentence be served, then part of your sentence served, then the remaining part of ours, or can... is there... does... is there some supremacy principle where the Federal Government can direct this if the States object?

Miguel A. Estrada:

Not in those terms, Justice Kennedy.

There is a case from this Court, Punsey v. Fessendon, which is at 258 U.S. 254, which encompasses a principle of primary jurisdiction, which is that each of the two sovereigns, State and Federal, may lend someone to the other Government so he may be tried, yet choose not to relinquish him for the service of the other sovereign sentence until they choose to, but under the statutes that we have, we would not take the view that we can break up a term of imprisonment and to tell the States how to do anything.