ABA: U.S. Supreme Court Update. May 1, 2009.

May 1, 2009.

Service from the ABA Criminal Justice Section, http://www.abanet.org/crimjust

DEAN v. UNITED STATES (No. 08-5274)

United States Supreme Court Opinion Decided: April 29, 2009

Petitioner Dean was convicted of conspiring to commit a bank robbery and discharging a firearm during an armed robbery. Because the firearm was “discharged” during the robbery, Dean was sentenced to a 10-year mandatory minimum prison term on the firearm count. sec.924(c)(1)(A)(iii).

On appeal, he contended that the discharge was accidental, and that sec.924(c)(1)(A)(iii) requires proof that the defendant intended to discharge the firearm. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed, holding that no proof of intent is required.

The Supreme Court held that Section 924(c)(1)(A)(iii) requires no separate proof of intent. The 10-year mandatory minimum applies if a gun is discharged in the course of a violent or drug trafficking crime, whether on purpose or by accident.

Subsection (iii) provides a minimum 10-year sentence “if the firearm is discharged.” It does not require that the discharge be done knowingly or intentionally, or otherwise contain words of limitation.

Mr. Dean argued that subsection (iii) must be limited to intentional discharges in order to give effect to the statute’s progression of harsher penalties for increasingly culpable conduct. While it is unusual to impose criminal punishment for the consequences of purely accidental conduct, it is not unusual to punish individuals for the unintended consequences of their unlawful acts. The fact that the discharge may be accidental does not mean that the defendant is blameless.

Because the statutory text and structure demonstrate that the discharge provision does not contain an intent requirement, the rule of lenity is not implicated in this case.


Roberts, C. J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Scalia, Kennedy, Souter, Thomas, Ginsburg, and Alito, JJ., joined. Stevens, J., and Breyer, J., filed dissenting opinions.

Available at: http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/08-5274.ZS.html

KANSAS v. VENTRIS (No. 07-1356)

United States Supreme Court Opinion Decided: April 29, 2009

Respondent Donnie Ray Ventris and Rhonda Theel were charged with murder along with other crimes. Prior to trial, an informant heard Ventris admit to shooting and robbing the victim, but Ventris testified at trial that Theel committed the crimes. When the State sought to call the informant to testify to his contradictory statement, Ventris objected. The State conceded that Ventris’s Sixth Amendment right to counsel had likely been violated, but argued that the statement was admissible for impeachment purposes. The trial court allowed the testimony. The jury convicted Ventris of aggravated burglary and aggravated robbery.

The Kansas Supreme Court reversed holding that the informant’s statements were not admissible for any reason, including impeachment.

The Supreme Court held that Ventris’s statement to the informant, concededly elicited in violation of the Sixth Amendment, was admissible to impeach his inconsistent testimony at trial.

The interests safeguarded by excluding tainted evidence for impeachment purposes are “outweighed by the need to prevent perjury and to assure the integrity of the trial process.” Stone v. Powell, 428 U. S. 465. Once the defendant testifies inconsistently, denying the prosecution “the traditional truth-testing devices of the adversary process,”

Harris, supra, at 225, is a high price to pay for vindicating the right to counsel at the prior stage. On the other hand, preventing impeachment use of statements taken in violation of Massiah would add little appreciable deterrence for officers, who have an incentive to comply with the Constitution, since statements lawfully obtained can be used for all purposes, not simply impeachment. In every other context, this Court has held that tainted evidence is admissible for impeachment. See, e.g., Oregon v. Hass, 420 U. S. 714.

Reversed and remanded.

Scalia, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C. J., and Kennedy, Souter, Thomas, Breyer, and Alito, JJ., joined. Stevens, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Ginsburg, J., joined.

Available at: http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/07-1356.ZS.html

Contact Information