Supreme Court disappoints a bumbling bank robber

His mandatory sentence for a gun crime applies, justices find, though the weapon discharged by accident.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Sometimes even a bumbling bank robber gets his day at the US Supreme Court.

Christopher Michael Dean's day arrived on Wednesday, though he almost certainly won't like the result.

At issue in Dean v. US was whether the bandit deserved to receive a 10-year minimum mandatory sentence because his gun accidentally discharged during a bank heist.

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The case is one of the quirkier of the high court's current term. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the majority opinion.

"Accidents happen," the chief justice said. "Sometimes they happen to individuals committing crimes with loaded guns. The question here is whether extra punishment Congress imposed for the discharge of a gun during certain crimes applies when the gun goes off accidentally."

First the crime, according to the opinion: "A masked man entered a bank, waved a gun, and yelled at everyone to get down. He then walked behind the teller counter and started removing money from the teller stations. He grabbed bills with his left hand, holding the gun in his right.

"At one point, he reached over a teller to remove money from her drawer. As he was collecting the money, the gun discharged, leaving a bullet hole in the partition between two stations. The robber cursed and dashed out of the bank. Witnesses later testified that he seemed surprised that the gun had gone off. No one was hurt."

Mr. Dean and another man were arrested on bank robbery and firearms charges. At trial, Dean confessed to the robbery. The judge sentenced him to a minimum mandatory term of 10 years in prison because his gun discharged during the robbery.

Dean appealed, arguing it was just an accident and that the government had to show that he intended to fire the weapon to qualify for the 10-year mandatory sentence. The statute also calls for a five-year sentence for possession of a firearm and a seven-year sentence for brandishing a firearm.

The appeals court disagreed and upheld the longer sentence. On Wednesday, the US Supreme Court affirmed that decision 7 to 2.

"It is unusual to impose criminal punishment for the consequences of purely accidental conduct," Justice Roberts wrote. "But it is not unusual to punish individuals for the unintended consequences of their unlawful acts."

Dean was already guilty of carrying out a violent bank robbery while armed with a gun. His unlawful conduct was not an accident, Roberts said.

"An individual who brings a loaded weapon to commit a crime runs the risk that the gun will discharge accidentally. A gunshot in such circumstances – whether accidental or intended – increases the risk that others will be injured, that people will panic, or that violence (with its own danger to those nearby) will be used in response," the chief justice said.

Then Roberts offered some advice to the criminally inclined: "Those criminals wishing to avoid the penalty for an inadvertent discharge can lock or unload the firearm, handle it with care during the underlying violent or drug trafficking crime, leave the gun at home, or – best yet – avoid committing the felony in the first place."

Justices John Paul Stevens and Stephen Breyer dissented.

They say the statute requires proof that Dean intended to fire his gun. "Accidents happen, but seldom give rise to criminal liability. Indeed, if they cause no harm they seldom give rise to any liability," Justice Stevens wrote.

In a response to the dissent, Roberts said it is wrong to assert that the gunshot caused no harm. "By pure luck, no one was killed or wounded," he said. "But the gunshot plainly added to the trauma experienced by those held during the armed robbery."

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