US v. Under Seal: In this interlocutory appeal, the Fourth Circuit considered whether the government could legally prosecute a juvenile for murder in aid of racketeering, involving events that occurred after the Supreme Court made unconstitutional the only two authorized penalties for that offense, i.e., death or life without parole, for juvenile offenders. The Fourth Circuit held that such a prosecution cannot constitutionally proceed.
At the district court, the government alleged that the defendant here, when he was a few months shy of turning 18, participated in a gang-related murder. The government moved to prosecute this juvenile for murder in aid of racketeering pursuant to a delinquency information. The defendant opposed the government’s motion, based upon recent Supreme Court cases that have drastically altered the legal landscape for juveniles charged with crimes that were penalized by death or mandatory life imprisonment, making such penalties illegal. Congress, since the advent of these cases, especially Miller v. Alabama, which constitutionally prohibited a mandatory life sentence on a juvenile, has yet to legislatively act in response. The government appealed here, with proposals for severing or excising the unconstitutional portions of the statute at issue, and leaving the constitutional portions of the statute intact.
The Fourth Circuit’s analysis here was a case of first impression, as no case had arisen yet where a criminal act charged against a juvenile is alleged to have been committed after Miller was decided. It discussed how severance is constitutionally okay, if the severed statute can function independently following severance; if not, severance is not viable. A criminal statute is not operative without articulating a punishment for the proscribed conduct, and the government’s proposed excision here would, in contravention of both due process and severance principles, combine the penalties for two separate, distinct criminal acts, in a manner that would be “nothing less than judicial legislation pure and simple.” Also, the Fourth Circuit notes that looking to legislative intent is pointless when there is no indication what the legislative intent would be under the circumstances, since Congress hasn’t said anything on the subject since Miller was issued (“in light of Roper, Miller, and Montgomery, juvenile sentencing is undergoing substantive changes”).
The Fourth Circuit notes that the government has other options available in its province to pursue against this defendant; however, it cannot prosecute constitutionally a juvenile defendant for murder in aid of racketeering.