WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Accidents happen, said the Supreme Court, but the criminal penalties can still be tough, at least for one "bungling bank robber."
The case involved Christopher Michael Dean, arrested after he and a partner robbed a bank five years ago.
By a 7-2 vote, the justices ruled Wednesday that the sentencing for a felon who accidentally fired a gun during a crime should be the same as if he had fired intentionally.
The case involved Christopher Michael Dean, arrested after he and a partner robbed a Rome, Georgia, bank five years ago.
The masked Dean had waved a gun and ordered patrons and staff to get down. While grabbing bills in one hand, the gun he was carrying in his other hand went off. The bullet hit a partition, and no one was injured.
After the shot, Dean cursed and immediately ran out of the bank. Witnesses later testified he seemed surprised the weapon had gone off.
Dean was charged in federal court and admitted committing the robbery. His sentence included a mandatory 10-year prison term for "discharging" a weapon during a crime. He appealed, saying the sentencing enhancement required proof that he intended to discharge the firearm, and his actions were accidental.
But in his majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts said federal law "does not require that the discharge be done knowingly or intentionally."
In what has become a regular feature of his writing, the 54-year-old chief justice displayed a sense of creativity and sly humor in his conclusions. He openly called Dean the "bungling bank robber" and quoted one patron's reaction to the bank gunshot: "Melissa in the lobby popped up and said, 'Oh, my God, has he shot Nora?' " Nora turned out to be all right.
Justice John Paul Stevens dissented in the case, noting, "Accidents happen, but they seldom give rise to criminal liability. Indeed, if they cause no harm they seldom give rise to any liability. The court nevertheless holds that petitioner is subject to a mandatory additional sentence -- a species of criminal liability -- for an accident that caused no harm."
He was supported by Justice Stephen Breyer.
Roberts, however, saved the best for last in his bench remarks, when summarizing the ruling. "An individual who brings a loaded weapon to commit a crime runs the risk that the gun will discharge accidentally," he said.
"Those criminals wishing to avoid the penalty for an inadvertent discharge can lock or unload the firearm, handle it with care during the underlying violent or drug trafficking crime, leave the gun at home, or -- best yet -- avoid committing the felony in the first place," Roberts wrote
That brought barely contained laughter in the audience of several hundred gathered in the courtroom.