Jury Not Judge to Decide Whether a Weapon Is a Machine GunMelancton Smith • Monday May 24, 2010 1:11 PM PDT •
Today the Supreme Court decided United States v. O’Brien. Under 18 U.S.C. 924(c) certain mandatory minimum sentences apply for carrying/using/possessing a firearm during a crime of violence or drug trafficking crime. The typical mandatory minimum is 5 years, but if the weapon is a machine gun, then the minimum becomes 30 years. The Court, in a unanimous decision, held that the determination of whether the weapon is a mere pistol or a machine gun must be made by the jury where the standard is beyond a reasonable doubt. The government argued that this determination could be made by the judge where the standard is a preponderance of the evidence.
This decision makes sense. The status of the weapon seems to be clearly an element of the offense and this matter, like all other elements, should be presented to a jury of the defendant’s peers.