In a unanimous decision Monday, the Supreme Court upheld the sentences of two men who received mandatory minimum five-year sentencing enhancements for possessing a gun during the commission of a drug offense. Under federal law, the presence of a weapon merits the five-year sentence, which must run consecutive to any other sentences.
In the second case, Wichita Falls, Texas, resident Carlos Gould pleaded guilty to a cocaine trafficking count with a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence and a related gun count with a five-year mandatory minimum. The trial court sentenced him to 11 years and five months on the cocaine charge, then added another five years for the gun count.
In appealing their sentences, both men pointed to a 1998 revision of the 1968 federal gun control law. In that revision, Congress added a new preface saying the gun enhancement would apply "except to the extent that a greater minimum sentence is provided." Both men argued that their longer sentences on related charges should have voided the additional five years on the gun convictions.
But Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing for the court, didn't agree, even though she conceded that ruling in their favor might make sense as a matter of policy. "We do not gainsay that Abbott and Gould project a rational, less harsh, mode of sentencing," she wrote. "But we do not think it was the mode Congress ordered."
Congress was not aiming for leniency when it revised the law in 1998, Ginsburg wrote. Nor did it mean to say that a longer mandatory minimum for related crimes voided the five-year gun sentence.
"We doubt that Congress meant a prefatory clause, added in a bill dubbed 'an act to throttle criminal use of guns,' to effect a departure so great from" the original purpose of the 1968 law," Ginsburg wrote. That purpose, she continued, was "insistence that sentencing judges impose additional punishment."
Monday's ruling is just one more indicator that the Supreme Court is not overly concerned about long, sometimes decades long, prison sentences meted out to drug offenders who possess guns, whether or not the weapon was used or displayed. The poster boy for the injustice of the gun sentencing enhancement is Weldon Angelos, a Salt Lake City pot dealer and aspiring rap music empresario who is now serving a 55-year sentence because he carried a pistol as he went about his business, even though he never shot or threatened anyone or brandished his gun. The Supreme Court upheld his conviction in 2006.