Convict: “Gimme a Break” – Supreme Court: “No”

On 21 June, the Supreme Court decided the case of Rita v. United States. There were a total of four Opinions in the case, the majority Opinion by Justice Breyer, two Concurrences by Justices Stevens and Scalia, and a solitary Dissent by Justice Souter. The question was marvelously simple, and didn’t seem to justify the time and firepower devoted to it. (The ACLU did not file a brief in this case, but several of its legal and political allies did, on behalf of the criminal.)

Victor Rita bought a “gun kit” from InterOrdinance which apparently when assembled produced an operating machine gun, contrary to federal law on the selling of such guns. Contacted by agents of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, Rita showed them the kit. When the agents came back, he had returned the kit and presented a different one to them. He also lied under oath to a federal grand jury about these matters.

After conviction, the issue became sentencing. Under the federal guidelines, his offense as a first offender (he had a prior firearms conviction, too old to consider) should have been 22 to 41 months. Rita’s attorney argued for a shorter sentence because of Rita’s health problems, and because he had “served in the US Military for 25 years.” The judge gave him the minimum guideline sentence of 31 months, and refused to reduce it.

The question was whether the trial and appellate courts should presume that any sentence within the guidelines was “reasonable” unless proven otherwise. Eight of the nine Justices agreed with this point, though they advanced different reasons for reaching the conclusion. The ACLU position on this case – go easy on the criminal – garnered the vote of only one Justice.