UNITED STATES v. O'BRIEN

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Case Basics
Docket No. 
08-1569
Petitioner 
United States
Respondent 
Martin O'Brien and Arthur Burgess
Advocates
(Assistant to the Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the petitioner)
(for the respondents)
Term:
Facts of the Case 

A Massachusetts federal district court convicted Martin O'Brien and Arthur Burgess of attempted robbery and related weapons crimes. One of the weapons used by the defendants was an AK-47 assault rifle. At a pre-trial conference, the district court ruled that the nature of the weapon (i.e. semi-automatic, automatic, etc.) was an element of the crime and, thus, a matter for the jury to decide. After sentencing, the government appealed, arguing that the nature of the weapon was a sentencing element, and, thus a matter for the judge to decide. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit affirmed, holding that under 18 U.S.C. Section 924(c) the nature of the weapon is an element of the crime that must be decided by the jury "beyond a reasonable doubt."

Question 

Is the sentencing enhancement for use of a firearm that is a machine gun under 18 U.S.C. Section 924(c) an element of the crime that must be proved "beyond a reasonable doubt" to a jury or a mere sentencing factor that may be found by a judge "by a preponderance of the evidence?"

Conclusion 
Decision: 9 votes for O'Brien, 0 vote(s) against
Legal provision: 18 U.S.C. Section 924(c)(1)(B)(ii)

The Supreme Court affirmed, holding that the fact that a firearm was a machinegun is an element to be proved to the jury beyond a reasonable doubt, not a sentencing factor to be proved to the judge at sentencing. With Justice Anthony M. Kennedy writing for the majority, the Court reasoned that Congress determines whether a fact is an element or a sentencing factor. But when Congress is not explicit, the courts look to a statute's provision and framework for guidance. Under this analysis, the Court determined that the fact a firearm was a machine gun is an element of the crime.

Justice John Paul Stevens wrote separately, concurring. He argued that McMillan and Harris, two cases holding that "sentencing factors" need only be proved by a preponderance of the evidence, should be overruled. Justice Clarence Thomas also wrote separately, concurring in the judgment. He agreed with the majority's conclusion, but argued that the better approach is to treat any sentencing facts that increase the mandatory minimum sentence as an "element of a separate, aggravated offense that is submitted to a jury and proved beyond a reasonable doubt."

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UNITED STATES v. O'BRIEN . The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. 12 December 2014. <http://www.oyez.org/cases/2000-2009/2009/2009_08_1569>.
UNITED STATES v. O'BRIEN , The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, http://www.oyez.org/cases/2000-2009/2009/2009_08_1569 (last visited December 12, 2014).
"UNITED STATES v. O'BRIEN ," The Oyez Project at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law, accessed December 12, 2014, http://www.oyez.org/cases/2000-2009/2009/2009_08_1569.