United States v. Shaffer, No. CR 13–4077–MWB–1.

CourtUnited States District Courts. 8th Circuit. Northern District of Iowa
Writing for the CourtMARK W. BENNETT, District Judge.
Citation44 F.Supp.3d 863
PartiesUNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff, v. Richard Allen SHAFFER, Defendant.
Decision Date05 September 2014
Docket NumberNo. CR 13–4077–MWB–1.

44 F.Supp.3d 863

UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff
Richard Allen SHAFFER, Defendant.

No. CR 13–4077–MWB–1.

United States District Court, N.D. Iowa, Western Division.

Signed Sept. 5, 2014.

44 F.Supp.3d 864

Forde Fairchild, Assistant U.S. Attorney, Sioux City, IA, for Plaintiff.

Rees Conrad Douglas, Sioux City, IA, for Defendant.


MARK W. BENNETT, District Judge.


This case presents an issue of first impression, the resolution of which will determine whether Defendant Richard Shaffer (Shaffer) spends the rest of his life in a federal prison. Shaffer recently pleaded guilty to bank robbery, a serious violent felony under federal law. Under 18 U.S.C. § 3559(c) —the federal three strikes law—a defendant convicted of a serious violent felony receives a mandatory life sentence if he “has been convicted (and those convictions have become final) on separate prior occasions in a court of the United States or of a State of ... 2 or more serious violent felonies....” 18 U.S.C. § 3559(c)(1)(A)(i). Shaffer has two prior serious-violent-felony convictions: one from a federal district court and another from an Army general court-martial. The question is: Is a court-martial “a court of the United States” under § 3559(c) ? If it is, Shaffer gets a mandatory life sentence. If it is not, Shaffer's sentencing range under the United States Sentencing Guidelines is 46 to 57 months, and his statutory maximum sentence is 20 years.

Shaffer is before me for final sentencing today. Shaffer has filed a sentencing memorandum in which he argues that § 3559(c) does not apply because Shaffer's court-martial is not a conviction in “a court of the United States.” The Government argues it is. After Shaffer's initial, but uncompleted, sentencing hearing, I provided the parties with a tentative opinion in which I tentatively concluded that a court-martial is “a court of the United States” under § 3559(c). The parties were then given the opportunity to file objections to the tentative opinion before I imposed a sentence. Shaffer filed objections, which expound upon his original argument that a

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court-martial is not “a court of the United States.” After considering all of the parties' arguments, I find that an Army general court-martial is “a court of the United States” and, therefore, Shaffer must receive a life sentence per § 3559(c).


On February 10, 2014, Shaffer pleaded guilty to one count of bank robbery in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2113(a). The robbery occurred on October 12, 2012. Shaffer walked into a bank in Sioux City, Iowa, approached a teller, and handed her a note demanding money. The note read: “Be Quiet (GUN) Gimmie the money in the drawer and the replenishment drawer 100, 50, 20 10, 5, Now Be Quiet!” The teller gave Shaffer $3,710 and Shaffer fled with the money. Police arrested Shaffer the next day on an outstanding warrant. Police then searched Shaffer's girlfriend's home, with her consent, where they found the clothes Shaffer had worn during the robbery and the note he handed to the teller.

Ordinarily, Shaffer's bank robbery would carry a statutory maximum sentence of 20 years. 18 U.S.C. § 2113(a). But here, the Government seeks an enhanced sentence of life in prison under 18 U.S.C. § 3559(c), which provides:

Notwithstanding any other provision of law, a person who is convicted in a court of the United States of a serious violent felony shall be sentenced to life imprisonment if ... the person has been convicted (and those convictions have become final) on separate prior occasions in a court of the United States or of a State of ... 2 or more serious violent felonies ... and ... each serious violent felony ... used as a basis for sentencing under this subsection, other than the first, was committed after the defendant's conviction of the preceding serious violent felony....

18 U.S.C. § 3559(c)(1). Shaffer's most recent bank robbery conviction qualifies as a “serious violent felony.” 18 U.S.C. § 3559(c)(2)(F)(i). In addition to his most recent offense, Shaffer has two prior felony convictions that the Government relies on in seeking a life sentence. Shaffer has a 1979 conviction in a United States Army General court-martial for unpremeditated murder, for which he was sentenced to 25 years confinement at hard labor and served 18 years. Shaffer also has a 2004 conviction in the United States District Court for the District of Nebraska for six consolidated bank robberies.1 Both of these prior convictions are for “serious violent felonies.” See 18 U.S.C. § 3559(c)(2)(F)(i) (classifying murder and bank robbery as serious violent felonies); id. § 3559(c)(2)(F)(ii) (alternatively, defining serious violent felonies to include any “offense punishable by a maximum term of imprisonment of 10 years or more that has as an element the use ... of physical force against the person of another,” which would include Shaffer's murder offense).

Shaffer does not dispute any of this. Rather, he argues that his court-martial conviction was not a conviction “in a court of the United States or of a State” and, therefore, it cannot serve as a predicate offense under § 3559(c). The Government argues that a court-marital is “a court of the United States.” If it is, § 3559(c) applies and Shaffer gets a life sentence. If it

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is not, § 3559(c) does not apply and Shaffer is instead subject to a 20–year statutory maximum sentence and a Guidelines range of 46 to 57 months.


Section 3559 does not define “a court of the United States.” Thus, I look to familiar rules of statutory interpretation to determine whether the phrase includes courts-martial. In interpreting § 3559(c), I give the statute's “words their ordinary, contemporary, common meaning....” Hennepin Cnty. v. Fed. Nat. Mortgage Ass'n, 742 F.3d 818, 821 (8th Cir.2014) (quoting United States v. Friedrich, 402 F.3d 842, 845 (8th Cir.2005) ) (internal quotation marks omitted). I must “interpret the relevant words not in a vacuum, but with reference to the statutory context, structure, history, and purpose.” Abramski v. United States, ––– U.S. ––––, 134 S.Ct. 2259, 2267, 189 L.Ed.2d 262 (2014) (quoting Maracich v. Spears, ––– U.S. ––––, 133 S.Ct. 2191, 2209, 186 L.Ed.2d 275 (2013) ) (internal quotation marks omitted). “A [phrase] in a statute may or may not extend to the outer limits of its definitional possibilities.” Dolan v. U.S. Postal Serv., 546 U.S. 481, 486, 126 S.Ct. 1252, 163 L.Ed.2d 1079 (2006). Determining a phrase's limits “depends upon reading the whole statutory text, considering the purpose and context of the statute, and consulting any precedents or authorities that inform the analysis.” Id. A statute's text itself may be evidence of the statute's purpose. See, e.g., AT & T Mobility LLC v. Concepcion, ––– U.S. ––––, 131 S.Ct. 1740, 1748, 179 L.Ed.2d 742 (2011) (noting that the Federal Arbitration Act's purpose “is readily apparent from [its] text”). If, after reading a statute in its proper context, that statute is unambiguous, then the “judicial inquiry is complete.” United States v. Smith, 756 F.3d 1070, 1073 (8th Cir.2014) (citations omitted).

Based on these standards, I conclude that the phrase “a court of the United States,” as used in § 3559(c), includes United States military courts-martial. A court-martial is certainly a “court.” See Anderson v. Crawford, 265 F. 504, 506 (8th Cir.1920) (“A court-martial is a court of limited jurisdiction.” (quoting Deming v. McClaughry, 113 F. 639, 650 (8th Cir.1902) )). Courts-martial are also naturally courts “of the United States” given their role in our federal constitutional and statutory scheme. Courts-martial are courts created by Congress and authorized by Article I, Section 8 of the United States...

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