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Supreme Court affirms extra sentence for accidental gunfire

A bungling bank robber deserves an extra 10 years in prison even though he apparently had not intended to fire his gun, the Supreme Court decided Wednesday.

“Accidents happen,” Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said. But the law can punish criminals for “purely accidental conduct” if it is part of another crime, he said.

The decision made for a bad end to a bank robbery that had gone wrong from the start for Christopher Dean.

Wearing a mask and carrying a pistol, he entered a bank in Rome, Ga., in 2004. Dean told everyone to get on the ground, and he began to remove cash from a teller’s drawer. As he reached for more money, the gun went off and a bullet ricocheted off a partition.

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No one was hurt.

Dean cursed and fled the bank with about $3,000. His getaway car soon was spotted at a nearby apartment, where Dean was arrested. He confessed to the robbery and was sentenced to 18 years in prison, 10 of which were a consequence of firing of his gun during the robbery.

The high court took up the case of Dean vs. the United States to decide whether an accidental discharge of a gun called for a longer prison term.

In 1998, Congress passed mandatory prison terms for anyone who carries a gun during a drug deal or any other “crime of violence.” One provision calls for seven years in prison if the gun “is brandished.” Another mandates a 10-year term if “the firearm is discharged.” Lawyers for Dean argued that this extra prison time should be imposed only on a criminal who intentionally fires his weapon.

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The justices disagreed in a 7-2 decision. Usually, criminal penalties apply only to deliberate acts of wrongdoing, but that is not always so. They noted that a person who drives drunk and speeds in his car can be charged with a homicide, even though he did not intend to kill someone.

Justices John Paul Stevens and Stephen G. Breyer dissented, saying they would have limited the extra prison term to “intentional discharges” of a gun.

When Roberts read his opinion in court, he called it “the case of the bungling bank robber.”

Roberts also offered some advice on how to avoid the 10-year penalty. He said criminals could handle the gun with care, leave it unloaded, leave it at home, “or -- best yet -- avoid committing the felony in the first place.”

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david.savage@latimes.com


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