Criminal Justice

Judicial discretion should be upheld in case involving sentencing standards, ABA says in amicus brief

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The ABA has filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court to support the argument that federal criminal statutes do not require a New York defendant who was convicted for his role in a murder related to drug trafficking to be sentenced to mandatory consecutive sentences.

Efrain Lora was found guilty in 2016 under 18 U.S. Code Section 924(j) for causing the death of a person through the use of a firearm while violating 18 U.S. Code Section 924(c), a separate subsection that involves the use or possession of a firearm during a violent or drug trafficking crime.

While Section 924(c) contains a provision that prohibits concurrent sentencing, Lora contends in his petition for writ of certiorari that it was not triggered by his conviction and sentencing under Section 924(j).

In its Jan. 27 brief, the ABA cites its Criminal Justice Standards and a report from the Justice Kennedy Commission as its basis for agreeing that Lora’s statutory construction leads to a principled outcome.

“The reading urged by petitioner would, consistent with the ABA standards, preserve the individual sentencing discretion of the trial judge, limit mandatory consecutive firearm sentences to direct violations of Section 924(c) and thereby cabin a form of mandatory minimum sentencing disfavored by the standards,” the ABA said.

The Criminal Justice Standards were first developed in 1964, and since then, more than 120 Supreme Court opinions have quoted from or cited them or their commentary, the ABA said. State supreme courts have additionally cited them in more than 2,400 opinions.

Meanwhile, the ABA has also examined the state of the criminal justice system through the Justice Kennedy Commission, which it formed after then-Justice Anthony Kennedy spoke to the association about criminal punishment at its 2003 annual meeting, the ABA said. The House of Delegates adopted the commission’s report and recommendations the following year.

The ABA said in its brief the consecutive sentence imposed on Lora represents a form of mandatory minimum sentencing, which is disfavored by the Criminal Justice Standards and the Justice Kennedy Commission report. The association said this disapproval stems from a concern that mandatory minimums limit the trial court’s discretion and shift discretion to the prosecutor.

“Requiring sentences for multiple offenses to be imposed consecutively, as the government urges here, would go against the policy of allowing judges rather than prosecutors to exercise sentencing discretion in individual cases,” the ABA said. “Even more troubling, it would endorse a form of mandatory minimum sentence by requiring sentences for multiple separate offenses to be served sequentially rather than at the same time.”

The ABA additionally argued in its brief that the Criminal Justice Standards favor the exercise of judicial sentencing discretion, including the imposition of concurrent sentences in cases. In citing the standards, the ABA said the sentencing function “should be the work of the courts, authorized by the legislature ‘to exercise substantial discretion to determine sentences in accordance with the gravity of offenses and the degree of culpability of particular offenders.’”

According to an ABA press release, federal circuits are split on the issue presented in Lora v. United States.

While the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at Denver has allowed concurrent sentences under Section 924(j), the 2nd Circuit at New York and others have required that sentences be served consecutively.

Oral arguments have not been scheduled in the case.

Mary-Christine Sungaila of the Complex Appellate Litigation Group in Newport Beach, California, filed the brief pro bono on behalf of the ABA.

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