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SCOTUS: Plain language of sentence enhancement statute means what it says

Lora v. United States, USSC No. 22-49, 2023 WL 4034313 (June 16, 2023), vacating and remanding United States v. Lora, unreported summary order (2d Cir. Feb. 15, 2022); Scotusblog page (including links to briefs and commentary)

Resolving a circuit split, a unanimous Supreme Court engages in a plain-language reading of a statute requiring a judge to impose a consecutive sentence for certain crimes and holds the statute does indeed mean what it says, and no more.

Lora was convicted of aiding and abetting a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(j)(1), which penalizes “[a] person who, in the course of a violation of subsection (c), causes the death of a person through the use of a firearm,” with the penalty depending on whether the killing was a murder or a manslaughter. Subsection (c), for its part, makes it a crime either to “us[e] or carr[y] a firearm” “during and in relation to any crime of violence or drug trafficking crime,” or to “posses[s] a firearm” “in furtherance of any such crime.”  § 924(c)(1)(A). The basic minimum sentence is 5 years, but that minimum increases under certain circumstances–such as when the firearm is brandished or discharged or is a machinegun. Subsection (c) also expressly provides that “no term of imprisonment imposed on a person under this subsection shall run concurrently with any other term of imprisonment imposed on the person.” Subsection (j), by contrast, has no consecutive sentence mandate. (Slip op. 3-4).

In sentencing Lora, the court concluded it had to impose a consecutive sentence because in violating subsection (j), Lora acted “in the course of a violation of subsection (c),” which does require a consecutive sentence. The Supreme Court holds a person convicted under subsection (j) is not subject to the consecutive-sentence mandate in subsection (c):

Subsection (c)’s consecutive-sentence requirement applies to a “term of imprisonment imposed on a person under this subsection”—i.e., subsection (c). § 924(c)(1)(D)(ii) (emphasis added). By those plain terms, Congress applied the consecutive-sentence mandate only to terms of imprisonment imposed under that subsection. And Congress put subsection (j) in a different subsection of the statute.

Drilling into the details confirms that straightforward reasoning. To begin, subsection (c) sets forth a host of offenses and the corresponding “term[s] of imprisonment” to be imposed. §§ 924(c)(1), (5)…. Those are the “term[s] of imprisonment imposed … under this subsection” that the consecutive-sentence mandate references. § 924(c)(1)(D)(ii). That is, by echoing the phrase “term of imprisonment” and referring inwards to “this subsection,” § 924(c)(1)(D)(ii) points to the terms of imprisonment prescribed within subsection (c).

A sentence imposed under subsection (j) does not qualify. To state the obvious again, subsection (j) is not located within subsection (c). Nor does subsection (j) call for imposing any sentence from subsection (c). Instead, subsection (j) provides its own set of penalties. See §§ 924(j)(1)–(2).

To be sure, subsection (j) references subsection (c). But it does so only with respect to offense elements, not penalties. Subsection (j)’s offense elements include causing death “in the course of a violation of subsection (c).” § 924(j). And to define that phrase, one must consult subsection (c)’s offense elements (i.e., what it takes to violate that subsection). But that is where subsection (c)’s role in subsection (j) stops. One need not consult subsection (c)’s sentences in order to sentence a subsection (j) defendant.

(Slip op. 4-5).

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