442 U.S. 114 (1979), 78-776, United States v. Batchelder

Docket Nº:No. 78-776
Citation:442 U.S. 114, 99 S.Ct. 2198, 60 L.Ed.2d 755
Party Name:United States v. Batchelder
Case Date:June 04, 1979
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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442 U.S. 114 (1979)

99 S.Ct. 2198, 60 L.Ed.2d 755

United States

v.

Batchelder

No. 78-776

United States Supreme Court

June 4, 1979

Argued April 18, 1979

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS

FOR THE SEVENTH CIRCUIT

Syllabus

Respondent was found guilty of violating 18 U.S.C. § 922(h), which is part of Title IV of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe [99 S.Ct. 2199] Streets Act of 1968 (Act). That provision prohibits previously convicted felons from receiving a firearm that has traveled in interstate commerce. The District Court sentenced respondent under 18 U.S.C. § 924(a) to five years' imprisonment, the maximum term authorized for violation of § 922(h). The Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction but remanded for resentencing. Noting that the substantive elements of § 922(h) and 18 U.S.C.App. § 1202(a), which is contained in Title VII of the Act, are identical as applied to a convicted felon who unlawfully receives a firearm, the court interpreted the Act to allow no more than the 2-year maximum sentence provided by § 1202(a).

Held: A defendant convicted of violating § 922(h) is properly sentenced under § 924(a) even though his conduct also violates § 1202(a). Pp. 118-126.

(a) Nothing in the language, structure, or legislative history of the Act suggests that, because of the overlap between §§ 922(h) and 1202(a), a defendant convicted under § 922(h) may be imprisoned for no more than the maximum term specified in § 1202(a). Rather, each substantive statute, in conjunction with its own sentencing provision, operates independently of the other. Pp. 118-121.

(b) The Court of Appeals erroneously relied on three principles of statutory interpretation in construing § 1202(a) to override the penalties authorized by § 924(a). The doctrine that ambiguities in criminal statutes must be resolved in favor of lenity is not applicable here, since there is no ambiguity to resolve. Nor can § 1202(a) be interpreted as implicitly repealing § 924(a) whenever a defendant's conduct might violate both sections. Legislative intent to repeal must be manifest in the "`positive repugnancy between the provisions.'" United States v. Borden Co., 308 U.S. 188, 199. In this case, the penalty provisions are fully capable of coexisting because they apply to convictions under different statutes. Finally, the maxim that statutes should be construed to avoid constitutional questions offers no assistance here, since this principle applies only when an alternative interpretation is fairly possible from the language of the statute. There is simply no basis in

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the Act for reading the term "five" in § 924(a) to mean "two." Pp. 121-122.

(c) The statutory provisions at issue are not void for vagueness, because they unambiguously specify the activity proscribed and the penalties available upon conviction. Although the statutes create uncertainty as to which crime may be charged, and therefore what penalties may be imposed, they do so to no greater extent than would a single statute authorizing alternative punishments. So long as overlapping criminal provisions clearly define the conduct prohibited and the punishment authorized, the notice requirements of the Due Process Clause are satisfied. P. 123.

(d) Nor are the statutes unconstitutional under the equal protection component or Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment on the theory that they allow the prosecutor unfettered discretion in selecting which of two penalties to apply. A prosecutor's discretion to choose between §§ 922(h) and 1202(a) is not "unfettered"; selectivity in the enforcement of criminal laws is subject to constitutional constraints. Whether to prosecute and what charge to file or bring before a grand jury are decisions that generally rest in the prosecutor's discretion. Just as a defendant has no constitutional right to elect which of two applicable federal statutes shall be the basis of his indictment and prosecution, neither is he entitled to choose the penalty scheme under which he will be sentenced. Pp. 123-125.

(e) The statutes are not unconstitutional as impermissibly delegating to the Executive Branch the Legislature's responsibility [99 S.Ct. 2200] to fix criminal penalties. Having clearly informed the courts, prosecutors, and defendants of the permissible punishment alternatives available under each statute, Congress has fulfilled its duty. Pp. 125-126.

581 F.2d 626, reversed.

MARSHALL, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

MARSHALL, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE MARSHALL delivered the opinion of the Court.

At issue in this case are two overlapping provisions of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 (Omnibus

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Act).1 Both prohibit convicted felons from receiving firearms, but each authorizes different maximum penalties. We must determine whether a defendant convicted of the offense carrying the greater penalty may be sentenced only under the more lenient provision when his conduct violates both statutes.

I

Respondent, a previously convicted felon, was found guilty of receiving a firearm that had traveled in interstate commerce, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(h).2 The District Court sentenced him under 18 U.S.C. § 924(a) to five years' imprisonment, the maximum term authorized for violation of § 922(h).3

The Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction but, by a divided vote, remanded for resentencing. 581 F.2d 626 (CA7 1978). The majority recognized that respondent had been indicted and convicted under § 922(h), and that § 924(a) permits five years' imprisonment for such violations. 581 F.2d at 629. However, noting that the substantive elements

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of § 922(h) and 18 U.S.C.App. § 1202(a) are identical as applied to a convicted felon who unlawfully receives a firearm, the court interpreted the Omnibus Act to allow no more than the 2-year maximum sentence provided by § 1202(a). 581 F.2d at 629.4 In so holding, the Court of Appeals relied on three principles of statutory construction. Because, in its view, the "arguably contradict[ory]" penalty provisions for similar conduct and the "inconclusive" legislative history raised doubt whether Congress had intended the two penalty provisions to coexist, the court first applied the doctrine that ambiguities in criminal legislation are to be resolved in favor of the defendant. Id. at 630. Second, the court determined that, since [99 S.Ct. 2201] § 1202(a) was "Congress' last word on the issue of penalty," it may have implicitly repealed the punishment provisions of § 924(a). 581 F.2d at 630. Acknowledging that the "first two principles cannot be applied to these facts without some difficulty," the majority also invoked the maxim that a court should, if possible, interpret a statute to avoid constitutional questions. Id. at 630-631. Here, the court reasoned, the "prosecutor's power to select one of two statutes that are identical except for their penalty provisions" implicated "important constitutional protections." Id. at 631.

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The dissent found no basis in the Omnibus Act or its legislative history for engrafting the penalty provisions of § 1202(a) onto §§ 922(h) and 924(a). 581 F.2d at 638-639. Relying on

the long line of cases . . . which hold that where an act may violate more than one criminal statute, the government may elect to prosecute under either, even if [the] defendant risks the harsher penalty, so long as the prosecutor does not discriminate against any class of defendants,

the dissent further concluded that the statutory scheme was constitutional. Id. at 637.

We granted certiorari, 439 U.S. 1066 (1979), and now reverse the judgment vacating respondent's 5-year prison sentence.

II

This Court has previously noted the partial redundancy of §§ 922(h) and 1202(a), both as to the conduct they proscribe and the individuals they reach. See United States v. Bass, 404 U.S. 336, 341-343, and n. 9 (1971). However, we find nothing in the language, structure, or legislative history of the Omnibus Act to suggest that, because of this overlap, a defendant convicted under § 922(h) may be imprisoned for no more than the maximum term specified in § 1202(a). As we read the Act, each substantive statute, in conjunction with its own sentencing provision, operates independently of the other.

Section 922(h), contained in Title IV of the Omnibus Act, prohibits four categories of individuals from receiving "any firearm or ammunition which has been shipped or transported in interstate or foreign commerce." See n. 2, supra. Persons who violate Title IV are subject to the penalties provided by § 924(a), which authorizes a maximum fine of $5,000 and imprisonment for up to five years. See n. 3, supra. Section 1202(a), located in Title VII of the Omnibus Act, forbids five categories of individuals from "receiv[ing], possess[ing], or transport[ing] in commerce or affecting commerce . . . any firearm." This same section authorizes a maximum fine of

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$10,000 and imprisonment for not more than two years. See n. 4, supra.

While §§ 922 and 1202(a) both prohibit convicted felons such as petitioner from receiving firearms,5 each Title unambiguously specifies the penalties available to enforce its substantive proscriptions. Section 924(a) applies without exception to "[w]hoever violates [99 S.Ct. 2202] any provision" of Title IV, and § 922(h) is patently such a provision. See 18 U.S.C. ch. 44; 82 Stat. 226, 234; S.Rep. No. 1097, 90th Cong., 2d Sess., 20-25, 117 (1968). Similarly, because Title VII's substantive prohibitions and penalties are both enumerated in § 1202, its penalty scheme encompasses only criminal prosecutions brought under that provision. On their face, these statutes thus establish that § 924(a) alone...

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