Abbott v. United States

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Abbott v. United States
Seal of the United States Supreme Court.svg
Argued October 4, 2010
Decided November 15, 2010
Full case name Kevin Abbott v. United States[1]
Docket nos. 09-479
Citations 562 U.S. 8 (more)
131 S. Ct. 18; 178 L. Ed. 2d 348
Argument Oral argument
Prior history Defendant convicted and sentenced, E.D. Pa.; affirmed, 574 F. 3d 203 (3d Cir. );[2] cert. granted, 559 U.S. 8 (2010)
A defendant is subject to the highest mandatory minimum specified for his conduct in 18 U.S.C. §924(c), unless another provision of law directed to conduct proscribed by §924(c) imposes an even greater mandatory minimum. Third and Fifth Circuits affirmed.
Court membership
Chief Justice
John Roberts
Associate Justices
Antonin Scalia · Anthony Kennedy
Clarence Thomas · Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Stephen Breyer · Samuel Alito
Sonia Sotomayor · Elena Kagan
Case opinions
Majority Ginsburg, joined by Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Breyer, Alito, Sotomayor
Kagan took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.
Laws applied
18 U.S.C. § 924(c)

Abbott v. United States, 562 U.S. 8 (2010), is a decision by the Supreme Court of the United States that addressed the mandatory sentencing increase under federal law for the possession or use of a deadly weapon in drug trafficking and violent crimes. In an 8-0 decision, the Court ruled that 18 U.S.C. § 924(c), which required a minimum five-year prison sentence, was to be imposed in addition to any other mandatory sentence given for another crime, including the underlying drug-related or violent offense. The only exception to the five-year addition applied only when another provision required a longer mandatory term for conduct violating §924(c) specifically, rather than a mandatory sentence for another crime as the defendants had unsuccessfully argued.

Abbott was the first signed opinion of the Court's 2010 term.[3] The newly appointed Justice Elena Kagan did not participate, having disqualified herself because she had worked on the case as Solicitor General of the United States prior to joining the Court.[4]

Background of the case[edit]

Statutory provisions[edit]

18 U.S.C. § 924(c) was originally enacted as part of the Gun Control Act of 1968.[5] §924(c)(1) prohibits using, carrying, or possessing a deadly weapon in connection with "any crime of violence or drug trafficking crime," and provides for a minimum sentence of five years in prison in addition to any other sentence imposed for the predicate crime. Congress amended the provision in 1998, to add that the five-year increase would apply "[e]xcept to the extent that a greater minimum sentence is otherwise provided by this subsection or by any other provision of law."[6] The interpretation of this "except" clause, at 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1)(A), was the sole issue in Abbott v. United States.

Lower court proceedings[edit]

Kevin Abbott was convicted of drug trafficking and of being a felon in possession of a firearm, which required a fifteen-year mandatory minimum prison sentence under the Armed Career Criminal Act 18 U.S.C. § 924(e). The court added five additional years to his sentence under §924(c) for the gun possession, for a total of twenty years.[7] Gould, in an unrelated prosecution, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to possess with intent to distribute cocaine base, which carried a ten-year mandatory minimum sentence, and to a §924(c) violation, receiving a total sentence of sixteen years and five months.[8]

In their respective appeals, Abbott and Gould both argued that the "except" clause at §924(c) was triggered by the mandatory minimums for the other crimes for which they were sentenced: the fifteen years for Abbott as a felon-in-possession, and the ten years for Gould for drug trafficking. Congress' intent, in their view, was to ensure that convictions brought at least five years in prison, not to add on additional years.[9] The Third Circuit in Abbott's case and the Fifth Circuit in Gould's both rejected their arguments and affirmed their sentences, ruling that the "except" clause only applied to sentences arising from violations of §924(c), not other crimes.

Abbott and Gould petitioned to the Supreme Court for review. Noting a circuit split on the issue, the Supreme Court granted certiorari and consolidated their cases for argument.[10]

The Court's decision[edit]

The Supreme Court affirmed the decisions of the Third and Fifth Circuits, upholding the imposition of the additional five-year minimum on both petitioners in an opinion delivered by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

The Court agreed with the government's statutory interpretation, that the "except" clause is triggered only when another provision commands a longer term for conduct specifically violating §924(c).[11] The Court's view was that "Congress intended the "except" clause to serve simply as a clarification of §924(c), not as a major restraint on the statute's operation."[12]

Gould argued that the "except" clause applied to any other mandatory minimum sentence imposed, while Abbott argued more narrowly that it applied to mandatory sentences arising from the same "criminal transaction" that constituted the §924(c) violation.[13] Both of the petitioners' arguments, however, would often remove any penalty for a violation of §924(c) and also anomalously give shorter sentences to more serious offenders.[14] The Court considered it implausible that Congress intended to lessen the severity of sentencing under §924(c) in 1998, particularly by doing so under a bill dubbed "An Act [t]o throttle criminal use of guns," an act that had as a "primary objective" the expansion of §924(c)'s coverage to reach firearm possession.[15]


  1. ^ Decided together with Carlos Rashad Gould v. United States, #09-7073.
  2. ^ Lower court proceedings in Gould: convicted and sentenced, N.D. Texas; affirmed, 329 Fed. Appx. 569 (5th Cir. ).
  3. ^ Barnes 2010; Liptak 2010.
  4. ^ Barnes 2010.
  5. ^ Abbott v. United States, slip op. at 5.
  6. ^ Abbott, slip op. at 5.
  7. ^ Abbott v. United States, slip op. at 3-4; Liptak 2010.
  8. ^ Abbott, slip op. at 4.
  9. ^ Barnes 2010.
  10. ^ Abbott, slip op. at 5 (collecting lower court cases and noting divergent interpretations).
  11. ^ Abbott, slip op. at 14-15. "For example, the mandatory minimum sentence for a §924(c) offense is five years, but if the firearm is brandished, the minimum rises to seven years, and if the firearm is discharged, to ten years. §924(c)(1)(A)(i), (ii), (iii). A defendant who possessed, brandished, and discharged a firearm in violation of §924(c) would thus face a mandatory minimum term of ten years." Slip op. at 3.
  12. ^ Abbott, slip op. at 16.
  13. ^ Abbott, slip op. at 9-10. The Court noted that Gould's sentence would remain unchanged under Abbott's formulation.
  14. ^ Abbott, slip op. at 11-12.
  15. ^ Abbott, slip op. at 10.

See also[edit]


  • Abbott v. United States, No. 09-479. Supreme Court of the United States, November 15, 2010 (slip opinion).
  • Barnes, Robert (November 16, 2010), Tough Gun Sentences Upheld, The Washington Post, retrieved November 16, 2010.
  • Liptak, Adam (November 16, 2010), Justices Rule Gun Use in Drug Crimes Means Added 5-Year Term, The New York Times, retrieved November 16, 2010.

External links[edit]