Mitchell v. United States

RESPONDENT:United States
LOCATION:Kimberley Thompson’s Apartment

DOCKET NO.: 97-7541
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit

CITATION: 526 US 314 (1999)
ARGUED: Dec 09, 1998
DECIDED: Apr 05, 1999

Michael R. Dreeben – Department of Justice, argued the cause for respondent
Steven A. Morley – Argued the cause for the petitioner

Facts of the case

Amanda Mitchell and others were indicted for offenses arising from a conspiracy to distribute cocaine. Mitchell was charged with one count of conspiring to distribute five or more kilograms of cocaine. Mitchell pleaded guilty, but reserved the right to contest the drug quantity attributable to her under the conspiracy count during her sentencing hearing. Before accepting her plea, the District Court told Mitchell that she faced a mandatory minimum of 1 year in prison for distributing cocaine and a 10-year minimum for conspiracy if the government could show the required 5 kilograms. The court also explained to Mitchell that by pleading guilty she would be waiving her right “at trial to remain silent.” At Mitchell’s sentencing hearing, the District Court found, after hearing testimony that included some of Mitchell’s codefendants, that Mitchell’s alleged drug sales of 1 1/2 to 2 ounces of cocaine twice a week for year and a half put her over the 5-kilogram threshold. Mitchell did not testify to rebut the Government’s evidence about drug quantity; however, her counsel argued the quantity of cocaine attributable to her for sentencing purposes. The District Court ruled that as a consequence of Mitchell’s guilty plea, she had no right to remain silent about her crime’s details; found that the codefendants’ testimony put her over the 5-kilogram threshold, thus mandating the 10-year minimum; and noted that her failure to testify was a factor in persuading the court to rely on the codefendants’ testimony. The Court of Appeals affirmed.


Does a guilty plea in federal court waive a defendant’s Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination during sentencing? When a defendant invokes his or her Fifth Amendment privilege during sentencing, may a trial court draw an adverse inference from the defendant’s silence?

Media for Mitchell v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – December 09, 1998 in Mitchell v. United States

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – April 05, 1999 in Mitchell v. United States

William H. Rehnquist:

I have the opinions of the Court to announce in three cases.

The first is 97-7541, Amanda Mitchell versus United States.

Now, the petitioner Amanda Mitchell pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute cocaine, but reserve the right to contest the amount of drugs attributable to her at sentencing.

The sentencing hearing witnesses for the government testified that the amounts of drugs were substantial and Mitchell distributed this without taking the stand to testify.

The District Court ruled that is a consequence of her guilty plea.

Mitchell had no rights to remain silent with respect to the details of her crimes.

In imposing a 10-year sentence the judge told Mitchell that he held it against her but she did not come forward and explained her side of the dispute.

The Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed the sentence and held it by pleading guilty to the offense Mitchell have waived her Fifth Amendment privilege.

In an opinion authored by Justice Kennedy we hold that a guilty plea is not a waiver of the Fifth Amendment privilege at the sentencing.

It is well-established that a witness in a single proceeding may not testify voluntarily about a subject and then invoke the privilege against self-incrimination when questioned about the details.

That is because a witness cannot pick and choose what aspects of a particular subject to discuss without casting doubt on the trustworthiness of the statement.

The concerns which justify requiring the defendant to undergo cross-examination when he or she testifies are absent at a plea colloquy, however.

Instead of presenting testimony that puts facts into dispute the defendant who pleads guilty takes matters out of dispute often by confirming the prosecutions version of the facts.

Under these circumstances there is little danger that the court will be misled by selective disclosure, nor does the federal rule of Criminal Procedure 11 which governs pleas contemplate the broad waiver of the privilege.

Treating a guilty plea as a waiver of the privilege at sentencing would encroach on the rights of defendants.

Were we to accept the government’s position prosecutors could indict without specifying the quantity of drugs involved, obtain a guilty plea, and then put the defendant on the stand of sentencing to fill in the drug quantity.

We also hold that the District Court was not entitled based on Mitchell’s silence to draw an adverse inference with regard to the amount of drugs attributable to her.

Justice Scalia has filed a dissenting opinion which has been joined by Justice O’Connor, Justice Thomas, and me; Justice Thomas has also filed a dissenting opinion.