The Biden administration encountered yet another obstacle as the Supreme Court delivered a unanimous ruling, which also included President Biden’s nominee Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson.
In a unanimous 9-0 verdict, the Supreme Court has concluded that specific individuals found guilty of gun crimes may qualify for shortened prison terms, enabling them to serve concurrent sentences for offenses related to firearms.
“Congress could certainly have designed the penalty scheme at issue here differently. But Congress did not do any of these things. And we must implement the design Congress chose,” Jackson wrote in the ruling.
The ruling noted further: “The case involves two subsections of 18 U.S.C. 924. Subsection (c) outlines offenses and penalties and states 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), which was added more recently, outlines other offenses and corresponding penalties. It does not include language about forbidding concurrent sentences.”
District courts typically have the authority to determine whether prison sentences should be served concurrently or consecutively. However, there are certain circumstances where specific laws may limit the option of imposing concurrent sentences.
Efrain Lora, the individual who brought forth the case, was found guilty of aiding and abetting someone involved in drug trafficking or a violent crime while carrying or using a firearm. Additionally, he was convicted of conspiracy to distribute drugs.
In 2002, Lora, along with three accomplices, engaged in cocaine trafficking and committed the murder of a rival drug dealer in New York City due to a territorial dispute. U.S. District Judge Paul Gardephe, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, sentenced Lora based on a law that prohibits concurrent sentences for offenses related to the crimes he was convicted of.
Lora was given a 25-year sentence for the conspiracy charge and an additional five years for the other crime. The decision was upheld by an appeals court.
Lora’s attorneys argued that the law cited by the judge did not apply to the aiding and abetting offenses, and therefore, his sentences should have been served concurrently. Federal prosecutors disagreed, asserting that the lower courts were correct and that the Supreme Court did not need to review the case.
However, every single justice ended up siding with Lora.
“Subsection (c)’s consecutive-sentence mandate applies only to the terms of imprisonment prescribed within subsection (c). A sentence imposed under subsection (j) does not qualify,” Jackson wrote. “Subsection (j) is located outside subsection (c) and does not call for imposing any sentence from subsection (c).”
“Combining the two subsections would set them on a collision course; indeed, in some cases, the maximum sentence would be lower than the minimum sentence,” she added.
The prison sentence has been vacated as a consequence of the ruling. Additionally, the high court has instructed the lower court to reconsider the case and impose a new sentence.
“We are thrilled that the Court preserved the longstanding default of discretion in criminal sentencing, restoring courts’ discretion to impose either concurrent or consecutive sentences in this case and others like it,” Lawrence Rosenberg, part of the legal team representing Lora, said in a statement to news outlets. “The Court’s decision to enforce the plain text that Congress enacted will help ensure that a defendant’s sentence fits both the crime and the individual.”
During oral arguments, however, Jackson also seemed skeptical of some aspects of the case.
“I don’t understand why the government believes in this case that it’s entitled to the penalty structure that comes with Section (c) if a person is convicted of (c) when (j) doesn’t say and it could easily have said any person who’s convicted of subsection (c), et cetera,” she told Assistant to the Solicitor General Erica Ross. “I think it is certainly true that Congress could have been clearer in this provision.”
Ross responded: “My point was simply that it also doesn’t say what [Lora] is suggesting.”