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Media Alerts - United States v. Bran -- Fourth Circuit
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April 4, 2015
  United States v. Bran -- Fourth Circuit
Headline: Fourth Circuit's Consecutive Statutory Sentencing Scheme Leaves MS-13 Leader Coming Up Short

Area of Law: Criminal Law

Issue Presented: Whether the district court erred by denying the appellant's motion for judgment of acquittal on Count 3 -- use of a firearm during a crime of violence causing death to another -- and by imposing a mandatory consecutive sentence for the same Count 3 conviction.

Brief Summary: José Armando Bran, i.e. "Pantro," was convicted of five criminal counts relating to his involvement and leadership in the Richmond Sailors Set, a violent clique of La Mara Salvatrucha ("MS-13"). At trial, the government presented evidence that in July of 2011, Bran ordered the murder of a fellow gang member who was believed to be an informant for a rival gang. Bran also provided the firearm used in the murder and instructed another individual to ensure the order was carried out.

Regarding Count 3, the government charged Bran with violating three criminal statutes: 18 U.S.C. §924(c)(1)(A), 18 U.S.C. §924(j)(1), and 18 U.S.C. §2. Section 924(c)(1)(A), which "prohibits the use or carrying of a firearm in relation to a crime of violence . . . or the possession of a firearm in furtherance of such crimes" (violation of the statute "carries a mandatory minimum term of five years imprisonment," which must run consecutively to any other sentence). Furthermore, section 924(j)(1) provides that a person who causes the murder of another by firearm shall be punished by death, imprisoned for life, or a term of years. The verdict forms instructed that if the jury returned a general verdict for Count 3, it had to then answer a three-part special interrogatory. The jury returned guilty verdicts on all five counts, however, in the special interrogatories, the jury merely found that Bran aided or abetted another to cause a firearm to be discharged in relation to a crime of violence, not that Bran aided or abetted another to use or carry a firearm in relation to a crime of violence. Thereafter, Bran moved for judgment of acquittal, which the district court denied. At sentencing the court imposed a life sentence for violation of §924(j) that was set to run consecutively to the sentences imposed for the remaining four counts. Bran appealed, arguing that the district court erred in denying his motion for judgment of acquittal and that the court erred in interpreting §924(j) to require a mandatory consecutive sentence.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court's ruling. The majority quickly dismissed Bran's sufficiency claim, noting the jury was presented with substantial evidence to sustain a conviction under §924(j). The court also noted that Bran's argument ignored the fact the jury returned a general verdict of guilt for Count 3, which was sufficient to uphold the 924(j) conviction. The special finding in the interrogatory merely supported this conviction. With regard to the mandatory consecutive sentencing issue, all circuit courts except the Eleventh Circuit have held that a sentence imposed for a violation of §924(j) must run consecutively to other sentences due to Congressional intent. United States v. Berrios, 676 F.3d 118, 143 (3d Cir. 2012). The court determined that reading 924(j) in any other way than to suggest consecutive sentencing would be absurd as "the central reason for Congress's choice of language in writing [§924(j)] - 'during the course of a violation of [§924(c)]' - was to ensure that separating out subsection (j) from subsection (c) did not deprive the law of a coherent sentencing scheme." Moreover, the majority noted that because a §924(j) violation includes language from a §924(c) violation, the defendant could be placed in a more lenient sentencing scheme; allowing for an absurd result.

Judge King dissented in part, stating that nothing in either §924(c) or §924(j) mandates a consecutive sentencing scheme; accordingly, the Eleventh Circuit's reasoning should be applied instead.

To read a full text of the opinion, click here.

Panel: Judges King, Shedd and Agee.

Date of Issued Opinion: 01/ 22/2015 (amended 01/ 23/2015)

Docket Number: Case No. 13-4634

Decided: Affirmed by published opinion.

Case Alert Author: Alexandra A. Stulpin, Univ. of Maryland School of Law

Counsel: ARGUED: Mary Elizabeth Maguire, OFFICE OF THE FEDERAL PUBLIC DEFENDER, Richmond, Virginia, for Appellant. Richard Daniel Cooke, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Richmond, Virginia, for Appellee. ON BRIEF: Michael S. Nachmanoff, Federal Public Defender, Patrick L. Bryant, OFFICE OF THE FEDERAL PUBLIC DEFENDER, Alexandria, Virginia, for Appellant. Dana J. Boente, Acting United States Attorney, Alexandria, Virginia, Roderick C. Young, Assistant United States Attorney, OFFICE OF THE UNITED STATES ATTORNEY, Richmond, Virginia, for Appellee.

Author of Opinion: Judge Shedd; Judge King, dissenting in part.

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor: Professor Renée Hutchins

    Posted By: Renee Hutchins @ 04/04/2015 04:11 PM     4th Circuit  

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