The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals published its opinion in United States v. Rentz on Monday, November 18, 2013.
After Philbert Rentz fired a single gunshot that wounded one victim and killed another, he was charged with two separate counts of using a firearm during a crime of violence in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c). Mr. Rentz moved to dismiss the second § 924(c) count. The district court granted his motion, holding that § 924(c) cannot support multiple § 924(c) charges arising from a single use of a firearm. The Government appealed.
At issue on appeal were: (1) whether § 924(c) permits two § 924(c) violations to be charged based on two underlying crimes of violence arising from a single use of a firearm, and (2) whether charging the two crimes of violence would violate the Double Jeopardy Clause.
18 U.S.C. § 924(c) criminalizes the use of a firearm in connection with a federal crime of violence or drug trafficking offense. A § 924(c) firearm charge is therefore derivative in nature. It rests on the commission of an underlying predicate offense—either a violent or a drug trafficking crime. It is unnecessary for a criminal defendant charged with a § 924(c) offense to be separately charged with and convicted of the underlying offense. But to establish a violation of § 924(c), the Government must prove the Defendant committed the underlying crime of violence.
Mr. Rentz was charged with two predicate offenses—murder and assault causing serious bodily injury. It would likely be uncontested in most cases that these two predicate offenses would support two § 924(c) derivative offenses. But this case arises from the unusual circumstance of a single gunshot causing both predicate offenses. The Tenth Circuit held that the statute allows two § 924(c) charges based on a single gunshot, because previous cases recognized that multiple § 924(c) counts are permitted based on a single criminal episode. The court stated that multiple underlying offenses could support separate § 924(c) charges so long as double jeopardy is not implicated.
The court held Double Jeopardy was not implicated here. The Fifth Amendment Double Jeopardy Clause of the United States Constitution provides that no “person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb.” Each underlying offense in this case required proof of an element that the other did not. Count I, second degree murder, required proof that Mr. Rentz caused the death of Mr. Francis with malice aforethought. Count IV, on the other hand, required proof that Mr. Rentz knowingly assaulted Mr. Dawes, causing him serious bodily injury. The charges did not therefore implicate the Double Jeopardy Clause.