Defendant’s criminal sentence hangs on court’s interpretation of a comma – which case won?
Defendant pleads guilty to criminal offence
In a case decided in 2016 by the United States Supreme Court, a defendant had pleaded guilty to the offence of possessing child pornography. The defendant had a prior conviction for the sexual abuse of his 53-year-old girlfriend, but no prior convictions for sexual abuse involving a minor.
As he had pleaded guilty, the only issue before the court was the sentence to be applied. The applicable sentencing guidelines suggested a term of imprisonment of between six and a little over eight years.
Should the previous conviction give rise to a mandatory ten-year sentence?
However, the relevant statute also prescribed that a ten-year mandatory sentence must be imposed where the offender had a prior conviction “relating to aggravated sexual abuse, sexual abuse, or abusive sexual conduct involving a minor…”
It was up to the court to interpret those words and decide how they applied in this case. That is, did the defendant’s prior conviction (which had not involved a minor) mean that a mandatory ten-year sentence had to be imposed?