On November 14, the United States Supreme Court agreed to review an Eleventh Circuit decision interpreting a federal criminal law. This decision held that firing a gun during a violent crime requires a sentence of at least ten years, even if the gun went off unintentionally. The Eleventh Circuit is located in Atlanta, Georgia and hears appeals from federal cases in Georgia, Florida, and Alabama. By hearing this appeal, the Supreme Court will remedy a discrepancy between the circuit courts.
In 2006 Christopher Michael Dean was convicted of taking by force and discharging a weapon during a violent crime. During an armed robbery of a bank in Rome, Georgia on November 10, 2004, Dean accidentally fired his gun while grabbing money from a teller drawer. He was sentenced to 18 years in prison.
A federal criminal law requires a minimum of ten years in prison for discharging a firearm during a violent crime. This ten-year sentence is in addition to the punishment for the underlying offense. Two federal appellate courts, the Ninth Circuit and the D.C. Circuit, have held that the law requires intent. In other words, in those circuits a defendant must intend to fire the gun to incur the additional ten years. The Tenth Circuit, however, has held that the law applies even when the discharge of the weapon is unintentional. This February, the Eleventh Circuit sided with the Tenth Circuit.
This split in the circuits could result in criminal defendants receiving drastically inconsistent sentences for similar crimes. In this case, Dean’s sentence was more than doubled due to his mistake. Under the Tenth and Eleventh Circuits’ decisions, the same result would occur for defendants in nine states, including Georgia. But in nine other states and Washington, D.C., defendants who accidentally fire their guns would receive significantly shorter sentences under the Ninth and D.C. Circuits’ decisions. The Supreme Court will resolve this inconsistency when they hear this case.