Lora v. United States: Some federal firearms convictions do not require consecutive sentences
By Greg Mermelstein, Deputy Director & General Counsel, Missouri Public Defender
           The federal gun statute, Sec. 924(j), which imposes certain penalties if a person kills someone with a firearm, does not require consecutive sentences, the U.S. Supreme Court held June 16 in Lora v. United States.
           Efrain Lora was accused of being the leader of a drug group which killed a rival drug dealer.  He was convicted of conspiring to distribute drugs, and of aiding and abetting a violation of 18 U.S.C. Sec 924(j). 
           That statute penalizes a “person who, in the course of a violation of subsection (c)” of Sec. 924 “causes the death of a person through the use of a firearm”.
           Subsection (c) of Section 924 provides that “no term of imprisonment imposed on a person under this subsection shall run concurrently with any other term of imprisonment.”
           At sentencing, Lora argued that subsection (j) did not impose a consecutive sentence requirement, unlike subsection (c).  He argued that his Sec. 924(j) sentence could run concurrently with his drug conspiracy sentence.
           The District Court ruled that it lacked discretion to impose concurrent sentences, and ordered his sentences to run consecutively.  It imposed a 25-year sentence for the drug conspiracy and a consecutive 5-year sentence for the 924(j) conviction.
           The Second Circuit held the statute mandates consecutive sentences.
           The Supreme Court granted cert. to resolve a circuit split.
           Sec. 924(j) does not require consecutive sentences, the Court held in a unanimous opinion.
           Federal laws that criminalize the use, carrying and possession of firearms in connection with certain crimes are “spread across” Secs. 924(c) and 924(j), the Court noted.
           Sec. 924(c) was enacted in 1968, and contains mandatory consecutive sentences, the Court said.
           But Sec. 924(j) was enacted much later, in 1994, the Court said.
           The language of the two statutes is different, the Court said.
           “Subsection (c)’s consecutive sentence requirement applies to a ‘term of imprisonment imposed on a person under this subsection’ – i.e., subsection (c)”, the Court said.  “By those plain terms, Congress applied the consecutive-sentence mandate only to terms of imprisonment imposed under that subsection.” 
           “And Congress put subsection (j) in a different subsection of the statute”, the Court said. 
           Subsection (j) does not “call for imposing any sentence from subsection (c)”, the Court said.  “Instead, subjection (j) provides its own set of penalties.”
           “To be sure, subsection (j) references subsection (c)”, the Court said.  “But it does so only with respect to offense elements, not penalties.”
           “Subsection (j)’s offense elements include causing death ‘in the course of a violation of subsection (c)’”, the Court said.  “And to define that phrase, one must consult subsection (c)’s offense elements”. 
           “But that is where subsection (c)’s role in subsection (j) stops”, the Court said.  “One need not consult subsection (c)’s sentences in order to sentence a subsection (j) defendant.”
           The Court noted that Congress could have written subsection (c)’s consecutive sentence mandate “more broadly” or placed subsection (j) within subsection (c).
           “But Congress did not do any of these things.  And we must implement the design Congress chose”, the Court concluded.
           The Court vacated the judgment and remanded for further proceedings.