WASHINGTON (CN) – The Supreme Court appeared critical Tuesday of the harsh sentence given to a man who was found to have interfered in interstate commerce because his robbery interrupted the victim’s plans to trade methamphetamine for sex with a prostitute.
Because he used a gun while robbing Sioux City, Iowa, drug dealers on April 15, 2013, Levon Dean Jr. faced a mandatory-minimum sentence of 30 years before the court even considered the remaining counts.
Those remaining counts – three Hobbs Act offenses for interfering with interstate commerce – were each punishable by up to 20 years but did not carry mandatory-minimums.
The Hobbs Act came into play because one of the robberies Dean committed occurred at a hotel in Sioux City that straddles the border of Iowa and Nebraska. Apparently the drug dealer whom Dean robbed, identified only as J.R., had brought drugs over the border from Iowa to trade for sex with the prostitute he was meeting.
Dean requested a downward variance on the Hobbs Act counts that would add just one day to his 30-year mandatory-minimum. Finding no discretion to do so, however, the court refused.
With his client sentenced to 400 months in prison, Dean’s attorney told the Supreme Court on Tuesday that rules making judges blind themselves to the fact of mandatory consecutive sentences when determining punishments ignores congressional intent.
“We don’t quarrel that 30 years must be imposed under the mandatory minimums,” attorney Alan Stoler of Omaha said this morning. “What we do quarrel with is whether or not the court should be able to take those factors into consideration as well as other factors … which give us the determination to be made as to what should be the appropriate sentence in this case.”
Justice Sonia Sotomayor was especially gentle on Stoler, suggesting it would be essentially impossible for judges to separate a criminal’s use of a gun in a crime from other charges stemming from the same crime.
“There is a little bit of twisting of a judge by saying you have to somehow put yourself in the position of punishing this person without knowing that he’s going to be punished for a gun anyway for 30 years and think of what the punishment should be without that punishment,” Sotomayor said.
Assistant to the Solicitor General Anthony Yang meanwhile argued that Congress intended for sentences to be more punitive when guns are involved in a crime.
“It is a harsh provision, there is no doubt,” Yang said. “But Congress intended it to be harsh because of the extreme danger presented when you add a gun to either a crime of violence or a drug trafficking offense.”
Justice Elena Kagan summarized Yang’s argument as contending that allowing judges to consider mandatory minimums when determining other sentences defeats the purpose Congress had when prescribing such ha tough punishment for gun crimes.
“Your argument is that, read Mr. Stoler’s way, this would utterly eviscerate (c)(1)(D)(ii), the consecutive requirement,” Kagan said, referring to a part of the gun-possession statute that requires the mandatory minimums to be served consecutively.
While Kagan said she was “quite sympathetic” to this part of Yang’s argument, the other liberal justices seemed to side more with Stoler’s positions. Chief Justice John Roberts joined them saying if Congress intended to ensure harsh punishments for people who use guns in crimes, it should have done a better job writing the law.
“On the other hand, it seems to me that if you’re talking about 30 years for an offense that a judge thinks merits a lot less, if Congress wanted to prevent circumvention, they should have written the law a lot more carefully,” Roberts said.