Richardson v. United States

PETITIONER: Richardson
RESPONDENT: United States
LOCATION: Knowles' Car

DOCKET NO.: 97-8629
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit

CITATION: 526 US 813 (1999)
ARGUED: Feb 22, 1999
DECIDED: Jun 01, 1999

Irving L. Gornstein - Department of Justice, argued the cause for the respondent
William A. Barnett, Jr. - Argued the cause for the petitioner

Facts of the case

A federal criminal statute, 21 U.S.C. section 848(a), proscribes any person from engaging in "continuing criminal enterprise (CCE)," which is defined as involving a violation of federal drug statutes where such a violation was part of a "continuing series of violations." Eddie Richardson, who had organized and managed the Chicago street gang called the Undertaker Vice Lords in order to sell drugs, was charge with a CCE violation. At trial, Richardson proposed to instruct the jury that it must unanimously agree not only that he committed some "continuing series of violations" but also that the he committed each of the individual "violations" necessary to make up that "continuing series." In other words, the proposed instruction would have required the jury to unanimously agree on which three acts constituted the alleged series of violations. The judge rejected Richardson's proposal and, instead, instructed the jurors that they must unanimously agree that the defendant committed at least three federal narcotics offenses, but did not have to agree as to the particular offenses. Subsequently, the jury convicted Richardson. The Court of Appeals upheld the trial judge's jury instruction.


Does the "continuing criminal enterprise" statute require juror unanimity as to each specific violation of federal law for conviction?

Media for Richardson v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 22, 1999 in Richardson v. United States

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 01, 1999 in Richardson v. United States

William H. Rehnquist:

The opinion of the Court in No. 87-8629, Richardson against United States will be announced by Justice Breyer.

Stephen G. Breyer:

This case involves a criminal statute that punishes a continuing criminal enterprise.

Now, the statute in making it a crime in part says, that you cannot engage in a "continuing series" of drug crimes.

To understand the legal problem that faces us and I have to admit that explaining the problem is the hardest part of the case.

You have to imagine that this word "series" requires at least three separate crimes.

Now suppose the government presents evidence of six separate crimes, must the jury unanimously agree about which particular drug crimes of those six constitute the series, that is if the government presents evidence of say crimes A,B,C,D,E, and F, is it enough that the jury agree that the defendant committed some three of those crimes, even if the jury disagrees about which three?

For example suppose all twelve think the defendant committed three of the crimes, the four jurors thinks he committed A, B, and C, four think he committed, D,E, and F, four think he committed A, B, and D.

Is that enough or does the jury have to agree unanimously about which of those three crimes the defendant committed?

Now, the Trial Court in this case agreeing with the government, instructed the jury in the first way i.e. it must unanimously agree only the petitioner engaged in some series of drug crimes but it does not have to agree about which individual crimes constituted the series.

The Court of Appeals thought the District Court was right, but we do not think the District Court was right.

We hold that the jury must unanimously agree about which of the underlying individual crimes is necessary that constitute the series.

Now, to put it little bit more legally it is given that a federal criminal jury has to unanimously agree that the defendant committed all the elements of the offence before it can convict and the dispute between the parties in this case reduces to whether the phrase "continuing series of violations" refers to a single element named in the series, or whether it refers to several elements namely be underlying crimes that make up the series.

We think, the latter.

Now the easier part is explaining why.

The statute uses the words "series of violations", violations refer to acts that are contrary to law.

Juries acting unanimously, traditionally decide whether a defendant has conducted himself in a way that amounts to a violation of the law.

Hence, Congress' use of the word violation, favors our interpretation.

We also draw support from the fact that the statutory word "violations" covers a large number of different drug crimes involving conduct of vastly different degrees of seriousness.

The government, in cases like this, often claims that a defendant has been involved in many such violations.

Unless the statute requires unanimity with respect to which underlying crimes the defendant actually committed, a jury might not focus on factual details, but simply conclude that with so much testimony that the defendant has committed some crime, where there is smoke there must be fire.

Finally our cases suggest that the Constitution imposes limits upon a State's power to define crimes in ways that permit conviction even though the jury disagrees about the underlying facts.

We do not believe that Congress here intended to write a statute that would come even close to that limit.

We therefore, reverse the Court of Appeals and we remand the case to further proceeding.

Justice Kennedy has filed a dissenting opinion in which Justices O'Connor and Ginsburg have joined.