United States v. Cotton

PETITIONER: United States
RESPONDENT: Cotton
LOCATION: South Carolina State Ports Authority

DOCKET NO.: 01-687
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

CITATION: 535 US 625 (2002)
ARGUED: Apr 15, 2002
DECIDED: May 20, 2002

ADVOCATES:
Clayton A. Sweeney, Jr. - for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers et al. as amici curiae urging affirmance
Deputy Solicitor General Dreeben - argued the cause for the United States
David Porter - for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers et al. as amici curiae urging affirmance
Joshua L. Dratel - for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers et al. as amici curiae urging affirmance
Lisa Bondareff Kemler - for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers et al. as amici curiae urging affirmance
Michael R. Dreeben - Argued the cause for the petitioner
Mary Price - for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers et al. as amici curiae urging affirmance
Peter Goldberger - for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers et al. as amici curiae urging affirmance
Timothy J. Sullivan - Argued the cause for the respondents

Facts of the case

A federal grand jury returned an indictment charging Leonard Cotton and others with conspiracy to distribute and to possess with intent to distribute a detectable amount of cocaine and cocaine base. After a jury convicted them, Cotton and the others received a sentence based on the District Court's finding of drug quantity of at least 50 grams of cocaine base, which implicated certain enhanced penalties. They did not object in the District Court to the fact that the sentences were based on a quantity not alleged in the indictment. While their appeal was pending, the U.S. Supreme Court decided, in Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466, that "other than the fact of a prior conviction, any fact that increases the penalty for a crime beyond the prescribed statutory maximum must be submitted to a jury, and proved beyond a reasonable doubt." In federal prosecutions, such facts must also be charged in the indictment. Cotton and others then argued before the Court of Appeals that their sentences were invalid under Apprendi, because the drug quantity issue was neither alleged in the indictment nor submitted to the petit jury. The appellate court vacated the sentences on the ground that it had no jurisdiction to impose a sentence for an offense not charged in the indictment.

Question

Does the omission from a federal indictment of a fact that enhances the statutory maximum sentence justify a Court of Appeals' vacating the enhanced sentence, even though the defendant did not object in the trial court?

Media for United States v. Cotton

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 15, 2002 in United States v. Cotton

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - May 20, 2002 in United States v. Cotton

William H. Rehnquist:

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

The first one is No. 01-687 United States against Cotton.

Respondents led a vast drug conspiracy in Baltimore.

A federal grand jury indicted them charging them with conspiracy to possess and to possess with intent to distribute crack cocaine.

The indictments did not specify the amount of crack cocaine involved in the conspiracy.

The jury found respondents guilty of the crime charged.

Consistent with the practice in Federal Courts at the time, the District Court made a finding of drug quantity at sentencing.

The Court found one respondent responsible for at least 500 grams of cocaine; other respondent was responsible for at least 1.5 Kilograms of crack cocaine.

For crimes involving 50 grams or more of crack cocaine, Congress authorized a penalty of up to life imprisonment.

Accordingly, the District Court sentenced two of the respondents to 30 years imprisonment and the remaining respondents to life.

Without a finding of drug quantity, the maximum punishment is 20 years imprisonment.

Respondents did not object in the District Court to the fact that they were sentenced based on a finding of drug quantity not alleged in the indictment.

While respondent's appeal was pending in the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, we decided Apprendi versus New Jersey in the Spring of 2000.

Under Apprendi, any fact that increases the penalty for a crime beyond the prescribed statutory maximum must be submitted to a petty jury, and in federal prosecutions must be alleged in the indictment.

Respondents then argued in the Court of Appeals that their sentence was error under Apprendi.

The Court of Appeals recognized that respondents did not raise this argument in the District Court but nonetheless, vacated respondents’ sentences on the ground that the omission of drug quantity from the indictment was a jurisdictional error.

In an opinion filed with the Clerk today, we reverse.

The notion that this type of error is jurisdictional is derived from our 1887 decision in Ex parte Bain which stated that a defective indictment deprives a trial court of jurisdiction.

Bain, however, was decided in an error in which the Court’s authority to review criminal convictions was greatly circumscribed.

Direct review of criminal convictions in this Court was not available and the Court could grant a petition for writ of habeas only to correct jurisdictional errors.

The Court does stretch the concept of jurisdiction so that it could correct obvious constitutional errors.

Our later cases however, have rejected the idea that Indictment defects affect the court’s power to hear a case.

To remove any doubt today, we overrule Bain in so far as it held that a defective indictment deprives the court of jurisdiction.

We thus apply ordinary plain error analysis to respondents’ claim since it was not raised in the Trial Court.

Federal Courts will recognize an error, not raised in the District Court only if the error affects the fairness, integrity, and public reputation of judicial proceedings.

Respondents do not satisfy this standard.

The fairness, integrity, and public reputation of the judicial system depends on meeting out to those inflicting the greatest harm on society the most severe punishments.

The real threat then to the fairness, integrity, and public reputation of judicial proceedings would be of respondents despite the overwhelming and uncontroverted evidence that they were involved in a vast drug conspiracy were to receive a sentence prescribed for those committing less substantial offenses because of an error that was never objected to in the Trial Court.

The judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed.

The decision of the court is unanimous.