Sunday, October 14th, 2012

You’ve Been Trumped

United States v. Carter, No. 11-3605-cr (2d Cir. September 28, 2012) (Leval, Cabranes, Katzmann, CJJ)

The “parsimony clause” of 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a) requires that the court impose a sentence that is not “greater than necessary” to serve the goals of sentencing. Many offense statutes, however, contain a  mandatory minimum sentence: a “blunt directive that may require judges to give sentences that they consider unduly punitive.”

On this appeal, Carter, who received a ten-year mandatory drug sentence – five years doubled due to his prior felony conviction – argued that this minimum did not bind the district court because the drug statute did not expressly override the parsimony clause.  The circuit disagreed, and affirmed.

Carter relied on 18 U.S.C. § 3551(a), which states that, “except as otherwise specifically provided,” a sentence must comport with § 3553(a). He also noted that many other statutes that prescribe a mandatory minimum contain a phrase like “notwithstanding any other provision of law.” But to the circuit, the absence of this phrase in the drug statutes did not matter. The “general sentencing provisions in § 3553(a)” must “give way to specific mandatory sentencing provisions elsewhere in the criminal code.” The considerations in § 3553(a), therefore, “cannot override” a statutory mandatory minimum.  

And § 3551(a) does not require mandatory minimum provisions to specifically disclaim the applicability of § 3553(a). A statutory provision that specifically describes how a defendant “‘shall be sentenced’ trumps the general sentencing considerations in § 3553(a).”

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