United States v. O'Brien

PETITIONER: United States
RESPONDENT: Martin O'Brien and Arthur Burgess
LOCATION: U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts

DOCKET NO.: 08-1569
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2009-2010)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit

CITATION: 560 US 218 (2010)
ARGUED: Feb 23, 2010
DECIDED: May 24, 2010

ADVOCATES:
Benjamin J. Horwich - Assistant to the Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the petitioner
Jeffrey L. Fisher - for the respondents

Facts of the case

A Massachusetts federal district court convicted Martin O'Brien and Arthur Burgess of attempted robbery and related weapons crimes. One of the weapons used by the defendants was an AK-47 assault rifle. At a pre-trial conference, the district court ruled that the nature of the weapon (i.e. semi-automatic, automatic, etc.) was an element of the crime and, thus, a matter for the jury to decide. After sentencing, the government appealed, arguing that the nature of the weapon was a sentencing element, and, thus a matter for the judge to decide. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit affirmed, holding that under 18 U.S.C. Section 924(c) the nature of the weapon is an element of the crime that must be decided by the jury "beyond a reasonable doubt."

Question

Is the sentencing enhancement for use of a firearm that is a machine gun under 18 U.S.C. Section 924(c) an element of the crime that must be proved "beyond a reasonable doubt" to a jury or a mere sentencing factor that may be found by a judge "by a preponderance of the evidence?"

Media for United States v. O'Brien

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 23, 2010 in United States v. O'Brien

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - May 24, 2010 in United States v. O'Brien

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Kennedy has our opinion this morning in case 08-1569, United States versus O'Brien.

Anthony M. Kennedy:

In this case, United States versus O'Brien et al, the respondents attempted to rob an armored car at gunpoint.

They fled, but were later captured and charged with various federal offenses.

One of the counts in the indictment charged them with use of firearms during a crime of violence and a second -- a separate count charged them with using a machine gun during their crime.

Now use of a firearm during a crime of violence carries a five-year mandatory minimum sentence, but if a firearm is a machine gun, the mandatory minimum sentence is 30 years imprisonment and the dispute here is this.

Does the machine gun provision of the controlling statute state an element of an offense to be established at the guilt phase of the trial or is it a sentencing factor that need only be found by the trial judge in the sentencing phase?

The Trial Court and the Court of Appeals both ruled that whether a machine gun was involved is an element of the offense to be proved at the guilt phase of the trial.

The government disputes this conclusion.

The government contends that the machine gun question is a sentencing factor, so that the relevant facts are for the judge to determine a sentencing.

The controlling statute is 18 U.S.C., Section 924 (c)(1).

We've interpreted the statute before.

Indeed one of those cases Castillo versus United States was on this very point, but the statute as it was interpreted -- as Castillo was later amended, so we found it necessary to revisit the matter.

Castillo was decided 10 years ago.

The Court then held in a unanimous opinion that the machine gun provision in an earlier version of the statute was an element of the offense.

We reached that same conclusion here and we agree with the Trial Court and the Court of Appeals in this case.

Since the statute has to be considered in each of its parts, it's appropriate to make this discussion and summary even more brief than usual.

When evaluating the statutory provision as it existed in Castillo, the Court looked to five factors in determining whether a particular fact is either an element or a sentencing factor.

First, the language and structure of the statute; second, whether the facts were historically treated as elements or sentencing factors; third, the comparative risk of unfairness accompanying each interpret -- either interpretation; fourth, the severity of the additional sentence; and fifth, the legislative history.

Today's opinion discusses these factors and we conclude as we did in Castillo that the machine gun provision is an element of an offense rather than a sentencing factor.

Little of import has change since Castillo.

The second through fifth factors continue to point in the same direction they did ten years ago and given the Court's conclusion in Castillo that the machine gun provision was an offense element; a substitutive change in the statute should not be inferred absent a clear indication from Congress of a change in policy.

Nothing in the congressional amendment to Section 924 suggests that change.

The judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit is affirmed.

Justice Stevens has filed a concurring opinion; Justice Thomas has filed an opinion concurring in the judgment.