Tuesday, January 23, 2007

65-year sentence affirmed for first offender convicted of 924(c) in triplicate.

Nope, not a typo . . . In United States v. Walker, No. 04-4405 (1/16/07), the Third Circuit affirmed a 65-year sentence for two armed robberies a jury said Mr. Walker committed in late 2004, as well as his possession of a firearm in connection with three crack-related offenses. The sentence consisted of a 10-year concurrent sentence for the drug offenses, and consecutive sentences, totaling 55 years, for three violations of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c).

At issue on appeal was "whether the 55-year consecutive mandatory minimum portion of [Mr. Walker's] sentence . . . violate[d] the Fifth and Eighth Amendments. op. at *1. Mr. Walker argued that 924(c)'s sentencing scheme violated due process and the separation of powers by limiting a court's sentencing discretion and preventing individualized sentencing. Reaffirming its decision in United States v. MacEwan, 445 F.3d 237 (3d Cir. 2006), the Court dismissed this claim, noting again that "Congress has the power to define criminal punishments without giving the courts any sentencing discretion." op. at *3. The Court also reaffirmed that "there is no due process right to individualized sentencing." Id.

Mr. Walker also argued his sentence violated equal protection in that it was irrational when compared with the punishments for other more serious federal crimes. Specifically, he noted that his sentence for offenses involving only the potential for violence was more severe than some sentences for offenses involving actual violence. The court dismissed this argument noting that the potential sentences for the referenced violent offenses could also be longer than the one Mr. Walker received.

Mr. Walker also argued that his sentence was irrational because 924(c)'s scheme of escalating sentences for subsequent convictions failed to differentiate between a true "recidivist" and a first time offender who is convicted all at once of more than one 924(c) offense. The Court dismissed this claim, noting that the Supreme Court's decision in Deal v. United States, 508 U.S. 129 (1993), held that 924(c)'s consecutive sentencing provision need not be limited to "recidivists."

Mr. Walker next argued that his sentence constituted cruel and unusual punishment. Applying the three part test set out in Solem v. Helm, 463 U.S. 277 (1983), for determining Eighth Amendment violations, the Court explained that the first step - a disproportion between "the gravity of the offense and the harshness of the penalty" - acts as a gateway, and if the first step does not exist there can be no Eighth Amendment violation. op. at ** 7-8. Noting that it must "grant substantial deference to the broad authority that legislatures necessarily possess in determining the types and limits of punishment for crimes," the Court found that the relationship between the harsh penalties under 924(c) and Congress' purpose for the penalties (to protect society "from violent criminals who repeatedly demonstrate a willingness to employ deadly weapons") was reasonable. op. at *9. Thus, the Court found that Mr. Walker's sentence was not grossly disproportionate from the gravity of his crimes, and accordingly found no Eighth Amendment violation.

Finally, Mr. Walker argued that 924(c)'s mandate of consecutive 25-year sentences conflicts with the parsimony clause in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) that courts "impose a sentence sufficient, but not greater than necessary." Based on this conflict, Mr. Walker argued that the rule of lenity mandated a lower sentence. The Court dismissed this claim, explaining that the rule lenity only applies where there is doubt about a statute's scope and that there was no doubt about the scope of 924(c).

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