By Malorie Letcavage

On March 30, 2016, the Fourth Circuit released its published opinion in the criminal case of U.S. v. Under Seal Defendant. The Defendant was a juvenile and federal law prohibits the public release of that juvenile’s name in association with the proceedings, so the juvenile was referred to as Defendant. Defendant was charged with murder in aid of racketeering in violation of 18 U.S.C. §1959(a)(1). This statute has a mandatory sentence of either death or life imprisonment. The government filed a motion in the district court to transfer the Defendant for prosecution as an adult for this offense. The district court denied the motion because the prosecution would be unconstitutional. The government appealed, and the Fourth Circuit affirmed, agreeing with the lower court that it would be against precedent and the constitution to sentence juvenile offenders to death or life imprisonment.

District Court Denied Motion for Transfer

The government’s motion for transfer was based on 18 U.S.C. § 5031, which removes juveniles from the ordinary criminal process. The act allows juveniles who are fifteen years old and above to be transferred from juvenile status if they have committed certain crimes and the transfer would be in the interest of justice. The court consider factors such as age, social background, nature of offense, and prior record in determining whether to transfer the juvenile.

In this case, Defendant was a few months shy of being eighteen when he participated in a gang-related murder. After the government’s motion to transfer the defendant, Defendant opposed the motion arguing that Supreme Court decisions held that juvenile offenders could not be sentenced to death or mandatory life imprisonment. Despite the interest of justice factors supporting a transfer, the district court agreed with Defendant that it would be unconstitutional to transfer and impose either of those mandatory sentences.

The court reviewed the recent court cases on point, stating that Roper v. Simmons held that juvenile offenders could not be sentenced to death, while Graham v. Florida prohibited sentencing juvenile offenders to life in prison without parole for non-homicide offenses. In Miller v. Alabama, the Court held that juveniles could not be sentenced to life without parole for all but the rarest cases where juveniles were irreparably corrupt. 18 U.S.C. §1959, which Defendant is charged under, only authorizes death or life imprisonment as punishments but the case law does not allow these punishments for a charge of murder in aid of racketeering.

Severability and Combination of Penalties Not Allowed 

The government posited the argument that the statute could be read to sever the problematic portions. The court explained that if legislation can function independently after an unconstitutional portion is severed, then it could be saved. The court found that the defining feature of a criminal statute is its punitive effect, and that if the unconstitutional punishments are removed from 18 U.S.C. §1959 there is no penalty provision. This lack of a penalty in a criminal statute invalidates it, and thus the statute cannot function independently.

The government also suggested that the statute could be restructured so that the punishment for kidnapping in aid of racketeering could be applied to murder in aid of racketeering, The Fourth Circuit soundly rejected this argument because to do so would be to overstep the judiciary’s role and trespass on the legislative role. The court refused to combine the penalties for two distinct criminal acts in the statute.

The Fourth Circuit also distinguished United States v. Booker by finding that nothing in that case allowed the judiciary to replace language in one provision with language not previously applied in a wholly separate provision. Booker looked to legislative intent in determining severability, but in this case there was no legislative intent available.

Government’s Arguments Rejected 

Furthermore, the court found that combining the penalties would violate due process. One of the notions of fairness stemming from the Constitution is the right to notice of what conduct is illegal and how severe the punishment for that conduct will be. The Fourth Circuit refused to look outside the boundaries of the statute for an alternative penalty since death and life imprisonment were not allowed because this would not give the Defendant fair notice of the punishment the crime would entail. The court held that it would not create new punishments outside of the authorized statutory punishments in the statute.

The court then distinguished other cases the government had relied on. It held that the cases cited did not give persuasive support because in this case the crime was committed after the Miller decision. It also held that other case law relied on only considered how to remedy a mandatory life sentence that was validly imposed at the time but later found to be unconstitutional, which was different than Defendant’s case. The court also rejected the government’s argument that its holding would cause the reversal of many convictions.

Fourth Circuit Affirms Denial of Motion to Transfer

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision to deny the government’s motion to transfer the Defendant to be tried as an adult. It held that because the charge had mandatory sentences that were prohibited when applied to juveniles, a transfer that would impose those sentences would be unconstitutional.