Edwards v. United States

RESPONDENT: United States
LOCATION: The White House

DOCKET NO.: 96-8732
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit

CITATION: 523 US 511 (1998)
ARGUED: Feb 23, 1998
DECIDED: Apr 28, 1998

Edward C. DuMont - Department of Justice, argued the cause for the respondent
Steven Shobat - Argued the cause for the petitioners

Facts of the case

At Vincent Edwards, Reynolds A. Wintersmith, Horace Joiner, Karl V. Fort, and Joseph Tidwell's trial for "conspiring" to "possess with intent to...distribute [mixtures containing two] controlled substances," the jury was instructed that the Government must prove that the conspiracy involved measurable amounts of "cocaine or cocaine base (crack)." After the jury returned guilty verdicts, the District Judge imposed sentences based on his finding that each petitioners' illegal conduct involved both cocaine and crack. On appeal, the petitioners argued that their sentences were unlawful insofar as they were based upon crack, because the word "or" in the jury instruction meant that the judge must assume that the conspiracy involved only cocaine. The United States Sentencing Guidelines treats cocaine more leniently than crack. The Court of Appeals concluded that the Guidelines require the sentencing judge, not the jury, to determine both the kind and the amount of the drugs at issue in a drug conspiracy.


May federal judges sentence someone convicted of taking part in a drug conspiracy based on a finding that two illegal drugs were involved, even if the jury might have convicted based on one drug?

Media for Edwards v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 23, 1998 in Edwards v. United States

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument this afternoon in Number 96-8732, Vincent Edwards, et al., v. United States.

Mr. Shobat.

Am I pronouncing your name correctly?

Steven Shobat:


William H. Rehnquist:

Thank you.

Steven Shobat:

Mr. Chief Justice and may it please the Court:

The ambiguous general verdicts returned in this case cannot support the sentencing court's finding that the conspiracy embraced both objectives charged in this dual object conspiracy, the two objectives being the distribution of powder cocaine and the distribution of crack cocaine, and they cannot be for four reasons.

First, Congress required the jury to determine the type of drug involved in the drug conspiracy before sentence could be imposed upon that object.

Second, the Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights to a jury determination of all the essential elements of a conspiracy requires the jury to determine what the object of the offense was, and particular to the type of drug.

Third, the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment does not permit punishment to be imposed in excess of the statutory maximum provided by Congress and, finally, nothing in the Sentencing Guidelines, to the extent that they ever could, undermines these principles.

With respect to what Congress intended, it's clear that in enacting section 846 Congress wanted to fix the maximum punishment available to a person convicted of that section to the offense, the object of which the conspiracy was intending to accomplish.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Mr. Shobat, does your argument depend on finding that both the type and the quantity of drugs are elements of the section 846 conspiracy?

Steven Shobat:

No, Your Honor, it does not.

It's clear that Congress, in listing the various different factors in section 841(b), intended that some of them be elements of the offense and some of them not be.

Congress made it explicitly clear in enacting section 851 that the existence of a prior conviction was one of the factors listed in 841(b) that should not be considered by the jury, and it did so by removing it from the jury's consideration, placing it in a separate statutory provision, and saying that the judge should make that determination.

It is also clear that, in considering whether or not--

Where is that?

Steven Shobat:

--Section 851, Your Honor?

Section 851--

David H. Souter:

You say by placing it in 851 rather than as one of the subsections of 841, you say?

Steven Shobat:


By removing it from the subsection of 841(b) and placing it in a separate statutory provision, and then having the judge, not the jury, determine... and interestingly, beyond a reasonable doubt, whether the--

David H. Souter:

Do you have 851 in your appendix?

I don't think you do, do you?

Steven Shobat:

--I'm... I don't... I'm not sure that it is in the appendix, Your Honor.

David H. Souter:


Steven Shobat:

But it did remove that consideration from the jury.

What it did not remove were the type of drugs and the quantity, but it is not necessary that those be treated identically for purposes of an 846 conspiracy, and there are several reasons for that.

First, Congress could well have intended that a conspiracy to commit a specific objective, which is an inchoate offense which does not require the completion of the object of the conspiracy and has separate elements from an 841(a) conspiracy to embrace a more specific object than would, say, an ordinary 841(a)(1) violation of possession, or a distribution.

In addition--