UNITED STATES V. UNDER SEAL, NO. 15-4265

Decided: March 30, 2016

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision denying the Government’s motion to transfer the Defendant for prosecution as an adult for murder in aid of racketeering.

When he was a few months shy of his eighteenth birthday, the Defendant allegedly participated in a gang-related murder.  The Government filed a motion to transfer the Defendant, who was a juvenile at the time of the alleged offense, for prosecution as an adult for murder in aid of racketeering.  This crime carries a mandatory statutory penalty of either death or life imprisonment.  The district court denied the Government’s motion after concluding that the prosecution would be unconstitutional given that recent Supreme Court decisions have held that the United States Constitution prohibits sentencing juvenile offenders to either of these punishments.

The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act permits juveniles 15 years or older to be transferred from juvenile status for prosecution as an adult if they are alleged to have committed certain violent crimes, including murder.  In Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005), the Supreme Court held that the Constitution’s guarantee against cruel and unusual punishment prohibited juvenile offenders from being sentenced to death.  In Graham v. Florida, 560 U.S. 48 (2010), the Supreme Court held that the Constitution also prohibits juvenile offenders convicted of nonhomicide offenses from being sentenced to life imprisonment without parole.  The Supreme Court also held in Miller v. Alabama, 132 S. Ct. 2455 (2012), that the Constitution prohibits juvenile offenders who commit murder from being sentenced to mandatory life without parole.  Life imprisonment is the mandatory minimum punishment for the offense of murder in aid of racketeering.  Thus given the recent Supreme Court decisions, the crux of the case was whether a judicial remedy existed that would nonetheless allow juveniles to be prosecuted for this offense, yet subjected to a punishment different from that enacted by Congress.  The Government asked that the unconstitutional sections of the statute be severed, but once these unconstitutional punishments are removed for purposes of prosecuting juveniles, no applicable penalty provision remains.  The Government further argued that the punishments set forth for kidnapping in the same statute should be applied to murder in this scenario.  The Court found that the Government’s proposal differed from an appropriate remedy of severance and excision, and instead usurped the constitutional allocation of the power to write a statute to Congress.  Thus accepting the Government’s argument would be nothing less than judicial legislation pure and simple.  Furthermore, grafting a newly applicable penalty provision into the murder in aid of racketeering statute would run counter to the Constitution’s guarantee of due process, given the lack of notice that would arise.

Accordingly, the Court affirmed the district court’s decision that the Defendant could not be prosecuted for murder in aid of racketeering because his conviction would require the court to impose an unconstitutional sentence.

Full Opinion

Katie E. Lowery

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