On April 24, 2000, Stephen P. Halbrookargued in the Supreme Court of the United States on behalf of Jaime Castillo, Brad Branch, Renos Avraam, Graeme Craddock, and Kevin Whitecliff, petitioners who were convicted of unlawful use of firearms arising out of the 1993 tragedy at Waco, Texas. The issue was whether certain firearm types, as defined in the federal Gun Control Act, are elements of offenses that must be alleged in the indictment and decided by the jury beyond a reasonable doubt, or are sentencing factors that may be determined by the judge by a preponderance of evidence. The Court ruled in favor of the petitioners. Castillo v. United States, U.S., 120 S. Ct. 2090, 147 L. Ed. 2d 94 (2000).
This case arose out of the tragedy that took place near Waco, Texas, on February 28, 1993, involving a raid by agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms on the residence of the Branch Davidians. The jury acquitted the defendants of all murder charges. Defendants were convicted of, inter alia, using firearms in a federal crime of violence, although they were acquitted of the predicate offense.
This Court vacated the thirty-year sentence for the firearm charge and remanded for resentencing. Pursuant to the remand, defendants have been resentenced to thirty years for this offense, under the theory that the use of an enhanced weapon may be found by the sentencing judge, and need not be alleged in the indictment or found by the jury. In other circuits, the type of weapon is considered an element of the offense, and a defendant would receive only five years for the offense under which defendants here stand convicted. In addition, although the jury acquitted defendants of using firearms under the Pinkerton instruction, the district judge has sentenced defendants as if each is responsible for the acts of the others.
Serious issues arise concerning constitutional law, statutory construction, and the sufficiency of evidence. Counsel is equipped to assist the Court in reviewing these issues. Oral argument would be beneficial to the Court in this case.
Stephen P. Halbrook served as counsel for Jaime Castillo.
The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously decided today in Castillo et al. v. United States that firearm types defined in the federal Gun Control Act are elements of offenses that must be alleged in the indictment and decided by the jury beyond a reasonable doubt. The case involves the 30-year sentences imposed on Branch Davidians who escaped from the tragic fire near Waco, Texas, in 1993. They were charged with and convicted of carrying or using a “firearm” in a crime of violence during the BATF raid. 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) makes this a 5-year offense, but the sentencing judge decided that “machineguns” were used and imposed a 30-year sentence.
Stephen P. Halbrook argued the case for the imprisoned Davidians in the Supreme Court on April 24. Today’s 9-0 opinion, authored by Justice Breyer, held that whether a gun is a “firearm,” “machinegun,” or other listed weapon is an element of the offense and not a sentencing factor. The Court agreed at the outset that “treating facts that lead to an increase in the maximum sentence as a sentencing factor would give rise to significant constitutional questions. . . . Here, even apart from the doctrine of constitutional doubt, our consideration of § 924(c)(1)’s language, structure, context, history, and such other factors as typically help courts determine a statute’s objectives, leads us to conclude that the relevant words create a separate substantive crime.” The statute provides that whoever, during and in relation to any crime of violence, “uses or carries a firearm, shall be sentenced to imprisonment for five years, and if the firearm is a . . . machinegun, . . . to imprisonment for thirty years.”
First, this language can be read “as simply substituting the word ‘machinegun’ for the initial word ‘firearm’; thereby both incorporating by reference the initial phrases that relate the basic elements of the crime and creating a different crime containing one new element, i.e., the use or carrying of a ‘machinegun’ during and in relation to a crime of violence.” The structure clarifies any ambiguity in that carrying or using a firearm is clearly an offense, and the machinegun language appears in the same sentence without being broken up into subsections. Second, “we cannot say that courts have typically or traditionally used firearm types (such as ‘shotgun’ or ‘machinegun’) as sentencing factors . . . .” The Court emphasized that “the difference between carrying, say, a pistol and carrying a machinegun . . . is great, both in degree and kind.” Several provisions of the Gun Control Act distinguish firearm types in defining offenses. Here, machinegun use is punishable by six-times greater imprisonment than firearm use.
Third, determination of the issue by the jury rather than a judge does not complicate a trial or risk unfairness. Indeed, “in determining whether a defendant used or carried a ‘firearm,’ the jury ordinarily will be asked to assess the particular weapon at issue as well as the circumstances under which it was allegedly used.” Leaving it to the judge to decide whether a machinegun was used “might unnecessarily produce a conflict between the judge and the jury.” Where two weapons are allegedly used, the jury may decide that only one-such as a pistol-was used. “A judge’s later, sentencing-related decision that the defendant used the machinegun, rather than, say, the pistol, might conflict with the jury’s belief that he actively used the pistol, which factual belief underlay its firearm ‘use’ conviction.” “There is no reason to think that Congress would have wanted a judge’s views to prevail in a case of so direct a factual conflict, particularly when the sentencing judge applies a lower standard of proof and when 25 additional years in prison are at stake.”
Fourth, the legislative history does not support the government. The § 924(c) firearm offense was enacted in the Gun Control Act of 1968, which was amended with the machinegun clause in the Firearms Owners’ Protection Act of 1986. Among other sponsors and supporters, Rep. Volkmer explained that the latter amendment “includes stiff mandatory sentences for the use of firearms, including machineguns and silencers, in relation to violent or drug trafficking crimes.” Such statements “show only that Congress believed that the ‘machinegun’ and ‘firearm’ provisions would work similarly” and “seemingly describe offense conduct, and, thus, argue against (not for) the Government's position.”
Fifth, “the length and severity of an added mandatory sentence that turns on the presence or absence of a ‘machinegun’ (or any of the other listed firearm types) weighs in favor of treating such offense-related words as referring to an element. Thus, if after considering traditional interpretive factors, we were left genuinely uncertain as to Congress’ intent in this regard, we would assume a preference for traditional jury determination of so important a factual matter.” The Court refers to several precedents holding that the “rule of lenity requires that ambiguous criminal statutes be construed in favor of the accused.”
For the above reasons, the Court reversed the judgment of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit and remanded the case for proceedings consistent with the opinion. The effect of this is that the defendants’ 30-year sentences for machinegun use must be vacated and that they should be resentenced to 5-years imprisonment for firearm use, the charge on which they were indicted and convicted.