On November 15, 2010, the United States Supreme Court issued its first opinion of the term in Abbott v. United States; Gould v. United States. Before the Court were two appeals from the Third and Fifth Circuits.

In its 8-0 decision (Justice Kagan did not participate), the Court tackled the federal sentencing provision in 18 U.S.C. 924(c) requiring an additional five year sentence for those individuals who are convicted of possessing a firearm during a drug trafficking crime or crime of violence.  In the opinion authored by Justice Ginsburg, the Court held a defendant is subject to the highest mandatory minimum sentence specified for his conduct in § 924(c) except when a greater mandatory minimum is required by another provision of law.  The Court determined the exception only applies to statutes covering the same type of conduct as the enhancement provision.

The Court rejected the arguments of Abbott and Gould who argued they were exempt from the five year mandatory minimum because they had been convicted of other separate offenses with higher mandatory minimums (15 years for Abbott and 10 years for Gould).  Although the except clause eliminates the five year minimum to the extent that a greater minimum sentence is otherwise provided…by any other provision of law, Ginsburg’s opinion identifies this exception does not relieve the“§ 924(c) offender of additional punishment simply because a higher mandatory minimum sentence exists in the United States Code.” The Court identified that Abbott’s and Gould’s proposed interpretations would result in sentencing anomalies the Court was sure Congress did not intend. 

While the Court’s opinion is fairly straightforward, it will have substantial effect on the types of charges brought by prosecutors.  The Abbott decision gives significant leverage to prosecutors in charging 924(c) offenses.  Abbott will prohibit prosecutors from stacking minimum sentences unless the prosecutor stacks actual § 924(c) sentences, and thus, defendants will not be released from a §924 sentence in most cases.