Supreme Court Votes To Soften Restrictions for Serious Crime

Supreme Court Votes To Soften Restrictions For Serious Crime

( – Unanimous rulings by the Supreme Court are rare. A unanimous ruling on a case involving a firearm is even more so. However, that’s what happened in a recent case where a defendant was sentenced to consecutive terms in prison for a crime involving a gun.

The Case

In August 2002, a federal judge sentenced Efrain Lora to 25 years in prison for aiding and abetting the intentional killing of someone while engaged in a drug trafficking conspiracy. The judge also included a five-year sentence for aiding and abetting the use and carrying of a firearm. When US District Judge Paul Gardephe sentenced the defendant, he said the sentences had to run consecutively (one after the other). The judge said he didn’t have the discretion to run the sentences concurrently (at the same time) because of 18 US Code §924(c)(1)(D)(ii)’s prohibition on concurrent sentences for violations of 18 US Code §924 (j).

Lora appealed his conviction to the US District Court for the Southern District of New York, arguing that the court should have allowed the sentences to run concurrently. The US Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit affirmed the lower court’s ruling. Lora appealed to the Supreme Court and asked them to determine whether 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1)(D)(ii)’s prohibition on concurrent sentences is actually triggered by those who are sentenced under § 924(j).

The Decision

On June 16, the Supreme Court handed down a 9-0 decision holding that 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1)(D)(ii)’s ban on concurrent sentences is not related to § 924(j). Therefore, Judge Gardephe could have allowed the sentences to run concurrently or consecutively with another one.

Associate Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson wrote the majority opinion for the court. She explained that subsection (j) provides its own penalties in the law and, therefore, was not subject to the penalties in subsection (c). The justice went on to say that even though subsection (j) references (c), it’s only doing so in reference to the elements outlined for the offense, not the penalties.

Jackson said the lower courts reached the decisions by blending the subsections but explained that’s not what was intended by the law. Further, she explained the “sentencing court cannot follow both” subsections because combining them “would set them on a collision course.” In some cases, doing so would make the minimum sentence more than the maximum sentence allowed.

It’s unclear if other defendants have received similar sentences based on the misunderstanding by the judge. The Department of Justice has not commented. Lora must now receive a new sentence.

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