Justices Say Gun Crime Sentences Can Run Parallel To Others

By Marco Poggio | June 16, 2023, 10:28 AM EDT ·

The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday unanimously ruled that criminal defendants convicted of certain federal gun crimes could be allowed to serve concurrent sentences if they were also convicted of other crimes, rebuking the government's view that sentences must run consecutively.

In its opinion in Lora v. United States, the high court decided that Efrain Lora, a Bronx drug dealer who received consecutive sentences totaling 30 years for taking part in a shooting that killed a rival pusher and for abetting the use of a gun that he did not personally fire, should have instead served concurrent sentences.

The decision is expected to have an impact for criminal defendants who, like Lora, have received harsher penalties under the government's interpretation of federal law.

Delivering the opinion for the court, Justice Kentanji Brown Jackson took aim at the government's interpretation of federal law, which she said departed from Congress' intentions.

"We must implement the design Congress chose," she wrote. The ruling vacated a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and remanded the case to the federal court in New York, where it was processed.

The case centered on two subsections of federal law that are among the most frequently used by prosecutors.

One, Section 924(c) of Title 18 of the U.S. Code, prescribes a five-year mandatory minimum sentence for possessing a gun while carrying out a violent or drug-related crime. The statute also specifies 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."

The other, Section 924(j), extends the death sentence and life imprisonment for people charged under Section 924 (c) when their conduct results in death.

The dispute before the justices largely focused on the reading of the plain text of the statute.

During oral arguments before the high court in March, Lawrence D. Rosenberg of Jones Day, who represents Lora, clashed with counsel for the government, Erica L. Ross, on whether the two subsections in the statute give rise to separate offenses.

Rosenberg said that they do, arguing the plain language of the law gives judges discretion to impose concurrent sentences. Under that reading, which the Eleventh Circuit espoused in its 2011 ruling in U.S. v. Julian , the consecutive sentencing mandate spelled out in Section 924 (c) does not apply.

Ross, on the other hand, argued that Section 924 (j) is simply an extension of Section 924 (c) that triggers the mandate.

Several justices appeared to find Ross' theory counterintuitive, with Justice Jackson, the only member of the court with substantial criminal defense experience, in particular voicing her skepticism.

In their decision, the justices sided with Lora, saying that "the actual statute bears no resemblance to the government's vision."

Justice Jackson said in the court's opinion that Congress meant to apply the consecutive-sentence mandate only to terms of imprisonment imposed under subsection (c), and that it put subsection (j) in a different subsection of the statute, which is to be considered as a separate offense.

"To state the obvious again, subsection (j) is not located within subsection (c). Nor does subsection (j) call for imposing any sentence from subsection (c). Instead, subsection (j) provides its own set of penalties," Justice Jackson wrote. "A sentence for a §924(j) conviction therefore can run either concurrently with or consecutively to another sentence."

Justice Jackson said combining the two subsections "would set them on a collision course," and usher in absurd scenarios where defendants are subjected to both a minimum and a maximum sentence.

For instance, Justice Jackson wrote, a person convicted of voluntary manslaughter for using a machine gun in the course of a violent or drug-related crime that resulted in death would trigger a sentence of at least 30 years under subsection (c). Subsection (j), meanwhile, would require the defendant to be imprisoned not more than 15 years.

Justice Jackson pointed out that outcome is impossible.

"Congress has not required that unachievable result," she wrote.

In a statement Friday morning, Rosenberg said the high court's decision shores up the power judges have had in considering concurrent sentences when appropriate to the facts of a case.

"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," he said. "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."

A federal jury found Lora guilty of being one of the cocaine and crack dealers who ambushed and shot Andrew Balcarran to death in August 2002. A judge with the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York sentenced him to five years in prison under Section 924(j), and to 25 years for taking part in a conspiracy to sell drugs, holding that the sentences were to run one after the other.

The Second Circuit upheld the sentence, citing its own case law holding that people convicted under Section 924(j) are also to be considered convicted under subsection (c).

The Third, Fourth, Eighth, and Ninth circuits interpret the law similarly, breaking with the Eleventh Circuit. The Tenth Circuit embraced a similar interpretation as the latter in its 2018 opinion in U.S. v. Melgar-Cabrera, after previously endorsing the circuit majority's view.

Lora turned to the Supreme Court last July. In his petition for a writ of certiorari, Lora said the circuit split was "clear, deep, and intractable."

"The conflict is deepening and requires resolution by this court," the petition says.

On Friday, the justice put an end to the rift, paving the way for defendants whose criminal prosecutions played out in areas of the country when the government's view has been applied to ask courts to have a second look at their sentences.

"I would expect that a lot of the defendants will now ask for reconsideration of their sentences," James E. Coleman Jr., a professor at Duke University School of Law, told Law360 on Friday.

Coleman called the decision "a pretty extraordinary result" in particular given that the court showed a united front against the government's position in a criminal case, which he said is rare.

"A unanimous court against the government's position in a criminal case. That's pretty incredible," he said.

Lora is represented by Lawrence D. Rosenberg of Jones Day.

The government is represented by Erica L. Ross of the Office of the U.S. Solicitor General.

The case is Efrain Lora v. United States, case number 22-49, in the Supreme Court of the United States.

--Editing by Alyssa Miller.

Update: This story has been updated with more details and with comments from Rosenberg and Coleman.

Hello! I'm Law360's automated support bot.

How can I help you today?

For example, you can type:
  • I forgot my password
  • I took a free trial but didn't get a verification email
  • How do I sign up for a newsletter?
Ask a question!