WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court on Tuesday narrowed the scope of a federal statute that requires harsh sentences for crimes involving a weapon.
The 7-2 decision united both conservative and liberal judges, though one dissenting judge compared the result to “Alice in Wonderland.” The judges said the law cannot be used to extend the sentences of criminals convicted of a specific attempted theft.
The case before the judges involved Justin Taylor, who was a marijuana dealer in the Richmond, Virginia area in the early 2000s. The government has said it sold large quantities of marijuana to other dealers who distributed it. In 2003, he and another man planned to steal money from a buyer, and during the robbery, the accomplice shot and killed the man.
Taylor was charged with “attempted robbery of the Hobbs Act”, a federal crime punishable by up to 20 years in prison. He was also charged under a federal statute that sets out mandatory minimum sentences for using a firearm in connection with a “crime of violence.” Taylor pleaded guilty to both and was sentenced to 30 years in prison, 10 years longer than he could have been served for the robbery alone.
However, a majority of the court ruled that an attempted robbery of the Hobbs Act does not qualify as a violent crime and that Taylor therefore does not qualify for the longer sentence.
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“Put simply, no element of an attempted robbery of the Hobbs Act requires evidence that the defendant used, attempted to use or threatened to use force,” Judge Neil Gorsuch wrote before a majority of the court.
The judges upheld a federal appeals court ruling that Taylor should be convicted again only of the Hobbs Act’s attempted robbery.
In a dissenting opinion, Judge Clarence Thomas Lewis quoted Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass.” He said the decision is an example of how the court’s approach to deciding on cases like this has led lower courts to a “journey through the mirror”, where the judges have found many “strange things”. He said the court, like Alice, has strayed far “down the rabbit hole”.
“I would hold Taylor accountable for what he actually did and uphold his conviction,” he wrote.
Judge Samuel Alito also disagreed, agreeing that the lawsuits in this area of the law “have gone into fantasy land.”
Frances Pratt, one of Taylor’s attorneys, said in an email that his attorneys are “glad to know the Supreme Court has ruled for our client” and hope the decision will help others. Taylor’s prosecution came at a time when officials in Virginia attempted to partially reduce Richmond’s high homicide rate by taking a hardline on gun crimes, taking those cases to federal rather than state court. The effort was dubbed “Project Exile”.
The case is United States v. Taylor, 20-1459.