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Setser v. United States

Summarized by: 

Date Filed: March 28, 2012
Case #: 10-7387
Scalia, J. delivered the opinion of the Court which Roberts, C.J., and Thomas, Alito, Sotomayor, and Kagan, JJ., joined. Breyer, J., filed a dissenting opinion which Kennedy and Ginsberg, JJ., joined.
Full Text Opinion: http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/11pdf/10-7387.pdf

Sentencing: Federal district courts have discretion to order a federal sentence to run consecutively with a state sentence that has yet to be imposed.

Petitioner was arrested and indicted for drug possession and the state revoked his probation for an earlier drug conviction. Petitioner also pled guilty to federal drug crimes and the District Court sentenced Petitioner to 151 months, to run consecutive to any state sentence for probation violation and concurrent to any state sentence for possession charges. The state court sentenced Petitioner to concurrent terms of 5 years for the probation violation and 10 years for the drug charge.

Petitioner argued that the District Court did not have authority to order consecutive sentences and that the federal sentence was unreasonable and impossible to implement in light of the concurrent state sentences. Petitioner further argued that because the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) has statutory authority to order a federal prisoner to serve time in a state prison when also convicted of a state crime, that it should also be the BOP that determines whether he would serve concurrent or consecutive sentences.

The Supreme Court noted that common law has long recognized the discretion of the judiciary to select whether sentences will run concurrently or consecutively when dealing with additional sentences imposed against defendants. The Court held that this discretion includes making determinations where the district court judge anticipates a state court sentence yet to be imposed against the defendant. The language of 18 U.S.C. 3584 assumes that such authority of the courts already exists and does not confer such authority to the BOP to make such sentencing decisions. The Court found Petitioner’s argument regarding the unreasonable and impossible nature of concurrent state sentences unpersuasive because district courts would face the same unknown future if such authority to determine concurrent versus consecutive sentences was placed with the BOP. While the Court found that the state and federal sentences are problematic they are not an abuse of discretion by the district court, and since determinations of concurrent or consecutive sentences have historically belonged to the judiciary, the district courts are the correct forum.