TN Supremes look to legislators’ intent in backing multiple gun crime convictions

Reversing the an appellate court decision after reviewing state legislators’ intent in enactment of a state law, the Tennessee Supreme Court has ruled that defendants can be convicted on multiple counts of using a gun in the commission of a crime – not just one.

Further from the News Sentinel’s Jamie Satterfield:

The ruling comes in the case of admitted Bloods gang member Lajuan Harbison in the shooting of an innocent Vine Middle School student.

The Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals last year overturned the convictions of Harbison in a September 2012 shootout in the middle of an East Knoxville street. The gun battle, which happened just as classes let out for the day, left one boy wounded and endangered dozens of others.

In its decision, the court also struck down as flawed the use of a law designed to target gun violence to boost penalties for a single gunman using a single gun to commit more than one crime in a single incident.

The state legislature in 2007 approved a law designed to target gun violence by making it a separate crime to use a gun in carrying out certain dangerous felonies. Thanks to a legal attack by attorney Gerald Gulley in Harbison’s case, the appellate court for the first time since the law passed put the brakes on a practice — widespread in Knox County — of filing repeated charges under that law in a single criminal case.

In an opinion drafted by Appellate Judge D. Kelly Thomas Jr., the mid-level court said its rationale was simple — one gun, one conviction, no matter how many separate crimes the gunman commits or how many people are victimized at one time.

It was not only a landmark decision legally but had great practical impact on prison terms for violent offenders who choose a gun as their weapon. Each conviction under the law in question carries a mandatory six-year sentence. That term must be stacked onto any sentence already being served or the punishment levied for the underlying felony the gun was used to commit.

The state, though, urged Tennessee’s high court to weigh in, and the court agreed.

In an unanimous opinion delivered by Justice Sharon Lee, the high court conceded the law itself — employing a firearm during a dangerous felony — didn’t address the one-gun, one-penalty debate directly. But Lee mined both the wording of the law and legislators’ own words about the law to decide the appellate court got it wrong.

… “We conclude from the plain language of (the law) that it was the Legislature’s intent to punish a defendant for each act of employing or attempt to employ a firearm during the commission of a designated dangerous felony,” she continued. “(The law) did not limit the State to charging a single count of employing a firearm if multiple dangerous felonies were committed against multiple victims in a single criminal episode.

“Statements made in Senate and House hearings indicate that (the law) was part of an anti-crime package and ‘designed to impose tougher sentences on those who commit crimes using guns,’” the opinion stated.

Note: The full opinion is HERE.

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