WASHINGTON (CN) - A federal judge ruled that the federal government can't use a District of Columbia gun law, in addition to similar federal laws, to seek a mandatory life sentences for four suspected drug traffickers.
The United States indicted the four suspects - Dawayne Brown, Ira Adona, Breal Hicks and Keith Matthews - last year on numerous charges, including conspiracy to distribute drugs and various violence and firearms offenses.
The suspects moved to dismiss their charges involving violations of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c), which punishes anyone who "during and in relation to any crime of violence or drug trafficking crime ... for which the person may be prosecuted in a court of the United States, uses or carries a firearm, or who, in furtherance of any such crime, possesses a firearm ..."
U.S. District Judge Richard Leon granted the motion, ruling that because the section specifically prevents the federal government from lumping other states' laws into its sentencing requests, it can't do so with D.C. laws.
"I conclude Congress intended for § 924(c) to reach only federal, U.S. Code crimes," states the judge in his ruling. "And therefore, notwithstanding the District Court's unique jurisdictional mandate, the Government may not bring § 924 (c) charges in the District of Columbia that it quite clearly could not bring elsewhere in any of the fifty states - i.e., charges predicated on local or state crimes - which would otherwise unfairly subject D.C. defendants to more severe penalties.
In D.C., brandishing or using a firearm in a crime significantly lengthens the mandatory minimum sentence for the crime.
According to Judge Leon, the defendants in this case face mandatory life sentences if prosecutors are allowed to stack the federal offenses on top of the D.C. law.
"Because I conclude that the language of the statute is ambiguous as to the precise issue before this Court, I have had to look at the legislative history and utilize other tools of statutory construction to discern Congress' intent," the judge states. "Having done so, however, I find that these sources clearly indicate that Congress in fact intended § 924(c)'s scope to reach only federal, U.S. Code predicates, not state felonies. And even if this intent were not clear, the ambiguity in the statute alone would be sufficient to invoke the rule of lenity in favor of the moving defendants here."
The judge dismissed the challenged counts, though many charges remain against the suspects.
"As a result of my ruling today, these four moving defendants no longer face a potential sentence of mandatory life in prison, if convicted," the judge concluded.