Eleventh Circuit Holds Jury Findings of Fact of Prior Convictions Not Required for Increased Sentences

In U.S. v. Harris, No. 12-14482 (Jan. 28, 2014), the Eleventh Circuit considered whether a sentence can be increased because of prior convictions without a jury finding the fact of those convictions and also whether 18 U.S.C. § 3559(c) and 21 U.S.C. § 851 violate the U.S. Constitution. 18 U.S.C. § 3559(c) states that a defendant convicted of a serious violent felony, who has previously been convicted of a combination or two or more serious violent felonies or serious drug offenses is subject to a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment.  21 U.S.C. § 851 requires the government to file a notice of prior convictions if it decides to pursue a mandatory life sentence under 18 U.S.C. § 3559(c).

Harris, the appellant, was convicted of three counts of Hobbs Act robbery and four other counts related to possession and use of firearms during those robberies after robbing a local video game store four different times. Prior to this, Harris had been in Florida state prison for nearly sixteen years for committing numerous armed robberies. The government filed the required information under 21 U.S.C. § 851 in order to seek a mandatory life sentence under 18 U.S.C. § 3559(c), showing that Harris had previously been convicted of one felony that qualified as a serious drug offense and seven felonies that qualified as serious violent felonies under § 3559(c). Eventually, the district court imposed the statutorily mandated life sentence.

The Eleventh Circuit rejected Harris’ first argument that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Alleyne v. United States, 133 S. Ct. 2151 (2013) prohibited a court at sentencing from considering a defendant’s prior convictions if the jury has not found that the defendant committed those crimes. Harris’ argument relied on the statement in Alleyne that because mandatory minimum sentences increase the penalty for a crime, any fact that increases the mandatory minimum is an element that must be submitted to the jury. However, the Eleventh Circuit noted that Alleyne did not address the specific issue here, and was actually governed by Almendarez-Torres v. United States, 523 U.S. 224 (1998), which recognized that prior convictions are excepted from the general rule that a jury must find any fact that will increase the penalty for an offense. The Eleventh Circuit recognized that there might be some tension between the Alleyne and Almendarez-Torres decisions, but stated that it still must follow the Supreme Court’s decision until the Supreme Court overrules.

The Eleventh Circuit also rejected Harris’ second argument that imposing a mandatory life sentence under 18 U.S.C. § 3559(c) was unconstitutional on separation of powers grounds because it impermissibly gave the executive branch the power to prosecute and sentence. The Eleventh Circuit previously decided the constitutionality of § 851 under separation of powers principles in United States v. Cespedes, 151 F.3d 1329 (11th Cir. 1998), where the Eleventh Circuit upheld that constitutionality of § 851, stating that “the power of the prosecutor under § 851 is no greater than the classic power of the executive to choose between charges carrying different mandatory penalties.” Id. at 1335. Harris tried to distinguish that case because it only dealt with a § 851 filing that restricted the range of sentences which the district court could choose, whereas the court here was required to impose a mandatory minimum sentence of life imprisonment. However, the Eleventh Circuit reasoned that this did not make any difference for the purposes of separation of powers principles; therefore, the reasoning and holding of Cespedes applied.

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