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High court adds 5 years for carrying a gun

March 3, 1997

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A five-year prison term set by federal law for having a gun while committing a crime must be added to the sentence a defendant already is serving for state crimes, the Supreme Court ruled today.

Voting 7-2 in a New Mexico case, the court said federal law does not allow defendants to serve the two sentences at the same time.

A federal law requires a mandatory prison term of at least five years for anyone convicted of using or carrying a gun in relation to various drug or violent crimes.

The law says the five-year term cannot ``run concurrently with any other term of imprisonment.″

``The plain language of (the law) forbids a federal district court to direct that a term of imprisonment under that statute run concurrently with any other term of imprisonment, whether state or federal,″ Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote for the court.

She said the law still leaves room for other federal sentences to be served at the same time as a state sentence.

Today’s decision set aside a federal appeals court ruling that said the sentence under the federal gun law can be served at the same time as a prison term someone already has begun for state crimes.

The case involves three men arrested during a 1991 drug sting operation during which two of them pulled guns on undercover police officers.

Miguel Gonzales, Orlenis Hernandez-Diaz and Mario Perez were charged with various federal crimes, including the gun-possession charge. They received prison sentences ranging from to 10 to nearly 14 years in prison.

The three previously had been convicted on state-law charges stemming from their attempted holdup of the undercover officers.

A federal trial judge ruled that the prison terms linked to most of the federal violations could be served concurrently with the state sentences, but that the five-year terms linked to the guns must be added on to the state terms.

The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the judge’s ruling on that point. But the Supreme Court said the trial judge was right.

The law is ``straightforward″ and ``speaks of `any term of imprisonment’ without limitation,″ O’Connor wrote for the court.

Her opinion was joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, David H. Souter, Clarence Thomas and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Justices John Paul Stevens and Stephen G. Breyer dissented. Writing for the two, Stevens said the court’s ruling still will allow the state and federal sentences to run together when someone is prosecuted on federal charges first.

The case is U.S. vs. Gonzales, 95-1605.

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