Tuesday, December 6, 2022 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Machine-Gun Use a Factor for Jurors, Not Judges

(CN) - The use of machine guns in an attempted robbery is an element of the crime for the jury to decide, not a factor to be determined by a judge at sentencing, the Supreme Court ruled Monday in the case of two men who used a fully automatic pistol to try to rob an armored car.

In June 2005, Martin O'Brien and Arthur Burgess approached an armored car outside a bank where two guards were unloading coins. O'Brien, Burgess and an accomplice brandished a gun and ordered the guards to get on the ground. One complied, but the other fled to a nearby restaurant, and the armed men abandoned their burglary. Authorities caught the men soon after and confiscated their weapons, including an AK-47 and a fully automatic Cobray pistol.

The government moved to dismiss count four -- "use of a machine gun (the Cobray) in furtherance of a crime of violence" -- since it could not prove the count beyond a reasonable doubt. Instead, prosecutors argued that the use of a machine gun was a sentencing factor that could trigger a 30-year mandatory minimum sentence for a conviction on another weapons count.

The Supreme Court disagreed, upholding the lower courts' findings that machine-gun use is an element of the crime that prosecutors must prove beyond reasonable doubt.

"The immense danger posed by machine guns, the moral depravity in choosing the weapon, and the substantial increase in the minimum sentence provided by the statute support the conclusion that this prohibition is an element of the crime, not a sentencing factor," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the unanimous court.

Justices John Paul Stevens and Clarence Thomas wrote concurring opinions. Thomas echoed the high court's ruling in Harris v. U.S., which held that any fact that increases the penalty for a crime beyond the statutory maximum "must be submitted to a jury and proved beyond a reasonable doubt."

"I continue to believe that this constitutional requirement applies to sentencing facts ... like the machine-gun enhancement at issue here," he wrote.

O'Brien was sentenced to 8.5 years in jail, and Burgess received 7 years behind bars.

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.