Almendarez-Torres v. United States

In Almendarez-Torres v. United States, 523 U.S. 224 (1998) the Supreme Court construed a federal criminal statute that provided a greater maximum penalty if the defendant had a prior felony conviction. Almendarez-Torres argued that, because his prior felony conviction triggered an enhanced maximum penalty, his felony conviction should be deemed an element of the offense -- a fact to be proved to the jury at trial. But the Supreme Court ruled that this clause of the statute was merely a penalty-enhancing provision, not an element of the crime. To reach this conclusion, the Court relied heavily on the assertion that recidivism "is a traditional, if not the most traditional, basis for a sentencing court's increasing an offender's sentence". The Court also noted that an increase in the maximum sentence for a crime does not necessarily disadvantage a defendant in the same way that an increase in the mandatory minimum sentence would -- for a sentencing judge is not obliged to impose the maximum sentence. The statute at issue in Almendarez-Torres was 8 U.S.C. 1326. This statute prescribes the penalties for returning to the United States after having been deported. This offense carries a maximum sentence of 2 years' imprisonment unless the defendant had been deported based on the commission of a crime. In that case, the maximum sentence is either 10 years' or 20 years' imprisonment (depending on the seriousness of the prior crime). See Almendarez-Torres, 523 U.S. at 228-29, 118 S. Ct. at 1223-24. The Supreme Court upheld a trial court's finding that a defendant's three prior convictions for aggravated felonies properly subjected him to a sentence in excess of the statutory maximum for the crime of conviction, notwithstanding the fact that the convictions had neither been included in the indictment nor found by a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. Specifically, in Almendarez-Torres, the Supreme Court held that the provisions of 8 USC 1326 (b) (2), which increased the maximum prison term for any foreign national who unlawfully returned to the United States after deportation and who had been deported based upon a conviction for an aggravated felony, constituted a penalty provision authorizing an enhanced sentence. As that section did not create a separate crime, nor did it constitute an element of the crime, the Court explained, the Government was not required to plead it in the indictment. The Court noted that although an "indictment must set forth each element of the crime" charged, statutes which authorize higher sentences for recidivists are almost uniformly viewed as setting forth "sentencing factors," rather than as creating new crimes. (Almendarez-Torres v. United States, supra, 523 U.S. at 228, 230.) Additionally, the Court noted, requiring the prosecution to charge a previous conviction in the indictment and to prove the fact before a jury beyond a reasonable doubt risks significant prejudice to the defendant, as the jury would undoubtedly learn of such other crimes evidence. (Id. at 234-235) Accordingly, the Almendarez-Torres court held that a prior conviction was to be treated as a sentencing factor, not as an element of the crime, and as such Fifth Amendment due process did not require that it be pleaded in an indictment in order for it to serve as the basis for enhancement of a defendant's sentence. In Almendarez-Torres v. United States, a decision which preceded Apprendi, the United States Supreme Court examined the due process ramifications of a sentence enhanced in part by reason of a prior conviction. In Almendarez-Torres, the accused was alleged to be an alien who had illegally returned to the United States after having previously been deported following conviction of an "aggravated felony." Accordingly, the accused was subject to an enhanced sentence of up to 20 years in federal prison pursuant to title 8 United States Code section 1326 (b)(2). Speaking for the majority, Associate Justice Stephen Breyer framed the question to be decided in Almendarez-Torres as follows: "The question before us is whether this latter provision defines a separate crime or simply authorizes an enhanced penalty. If the former, i.e., if it constitutes a separate crime, then the Government must write an indictment that mentions the additional element, namely, a prior aggravated felony conviction. If the latter, i.e., if the provision simply authorizes an enhanced sentence when an offender also has an earlier conviction, then the indictment need not mention that fact, for the fact of an earlier conviction is not an element of the present crime. The Court conclude that the subsection is a penalty provision, which simply authorizes a court to increase the sentence for a recidivist. It does not define a separate crime. Consequently, neither the statute nor the Constitution requires the Government to charge the factor that it mentions, an earlier conviction, in the indictment." ( Almendarez-Torres v. United States, supra, 523 U.S. at pp. 226-227 118 S. Ct. at p. 1222.) In Almendarez-Torres, the Supreme Court rejected the defendant's argument that the prior conviction constituted an element of the crime which the Fifth Amendment due process clause required to be alleged in the indictment. Justice Breyer stated: "The sentencing factor at issue here--recidivism--is a traditional, if not the most traditional, basis for a sentencing court's increasing an offender's sentence.