445 U.S. 552 (1980), 78-1793, Roberts v. United States

Docket Nº:No. 78-1793
Citation:445 U.S. 552, 100 S.Ct. 1358, 63 L.Ed.2d 622
Party Name:Roberts v. United States
Case Date:April 15, 1980
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 552

445 U.S. 552 (1980)

100 S.Ct. 1358, 63 L.Ed.2d 622



United States

No. 78-1793

United States Supreme Court

April 15, 1980

Argued January 14, 15, 1980




Held: The District Court properly considered, as one factor in imposing consecutive [100 S.Ct. 1360] sentences on petitioner who had pleaded guilty to two counts of using a telephone to facilitate the distribution of heroin, petitioner's refusal to cooperate with Government officials investigating a related criminal conspiracy to distribute heroin in which he was a confessed participant. Pp. 556-562.

(a) No misinformation of constitutional magnitude was present in this case; petitioner rebuffed repeated requests for his cooperation over a period of three years, and concedes that cooperation with the authorities is a "laudable endeavor" that bears a "rational connection to a defendant's willingness to shape up and change his behavior." By declining to cooperate, petitioner rejected an obligation of community life that should be recognized before rehabilitation can begin, and protected his former partners in crime, thereby preserving his ability to resume criminal activities upon release. Pp. 556-558.

(b) Nor can petitioner's failure to cooperate be justified on the basis of fears of physical retaliation and self-incrimination, or on the ground that the District Court punished him for exercising his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. These arguments were raised for the first time in petitioner's appellate brief, neither petitioner nor his lawyer having offered any explanation to the sentencing court, even though it was known that petitioner's intransigency would be used against him. Although the requirement of Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436, of specific warnings creates a limited exception to the rule that the privilege against self-incrimination is not self-executing, and must be claimed, the exception does not apply outside the context of the inherently coercive custodial interrogation for which it was designed, and here there was no custodial interrogation. Petitioner volunteered his confession at his first interview with investigators, after Miranda warnings had been given and at a time when he was free to leave. For the next three years, until the time when he received the sentence he now challenges, neither he nor his counsel -- who were both fully apprised that the extent of petitioner's cooperation could be expected to affect his sentence -- ever claimed that petitioner's unwillingness to cooperate

Page 553

was based upon the right to remain silent or the fear of self-incrimination. Pp. 559-562.

195 U.S.App.D.C. 1, 600 F.2d 815, affirmed.

POWELL, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and BRENNAN, STEWART, WHITE, BLACKMUN, REHNQUIST, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. BRENNAN, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 562. MARSHALL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 563.

POWELL, J., lead opinion

MR JUSTICE POWELL delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question is whether the District Court properly considered, as one factor in imposing sentence, the petitioner's refusal to cooperate with officials investigating a criminal conspiracy in which he was a confessed participant.


Petitioner Winfield Roberts accompanied Cecilia Payne to the office of the United States Attorney for the District of Columbia one day in June, 1975. Government surveillance previously had revealed that a green Jaguar owned by Payne was used to transport heroin within the District. Payne told investigators that she occasionally lent the Jaguar to petitioner, who was waiting outside in the hall. At Payne's suggestion, the investigators asked petitioner if he would answer some questions. Although petitioner was present voluntarily, the investigators gave him the warnings required by Miranda v. Arizona, 384 U.S. 436 (1966). They also told him that he

Page 554

was free to leave. When petitioner indicated that he would stay, the investigators asked whether he knew "Boo" [100 S.Ct. 1361] Thornton, then the principal target of the heroin investigation. Petitioner admitted that he had delivered heroin to Thornton on several occasions. Confessing also that he had discussed drug transactions with Thornton in certain intercepted telephone conversations, petitioner explained the meaning of code words used in the conversations. When asked to name suppliers, however, petitioner gave evasive answers. Although the investigators warned petitioner that the extent of his cooperation would bear on the charges brought against him, he provided no further information.

Petitioner was indicted on one count of conspiring to distribute heroin, 21 U.S.C. § § 841, 846, and four counts of using a telephone to facilitate the distribution of heroin, 21 U.S.C. § 843(b).1 He retained a lawyer, who rejected the Government's continued efforts to enlist petitioner's assistance. In March, 1976, petitioner entered a plea of guilty to the conspiracy count and received a sentence of 4 to 15 years' imprisonment, 3 years' special parole, and a $5,000 fine. The Court of Appeals vacated the conviction on the ground that the terms of the plea agreement were inadequately disclosed to the District Court. United States v. Roberts, 187 U.S.App.D.C. 90, 570 F.2d 999 (1977).

On remand, petitioner pleaded guilty to two counts of telephone misuse under an agreement that permitted the Government to seek a substantial sentence. The Government filed a memorandum recommending two consecutive sentences of 16 to 48 months each and a $5,000 fine.2 The memorandum cited petitioner's previous conviction for 10 counts of bank robbery, his voluntary confession, and his subsequent

Page 555

refusal to name suppliers. The memorandum also emphasized the tragic social consequences of the heroin trade. Since petitioner was not himself an addict and had no familial responsibilities, the Government theorized that he sold heroin to support his extravagant lifestyle while unemployed and on parole. The Government concluded that stern sentences were necessary to deter those who would traffic in deadly drugs for personal profit.

At the sentencing hearing, defense counsel noted that petitioner had been incarcerated for two years pending appeal and that codefendant Thornton had been sentenced to probation. Counsel argued that petitioner should receive concurrent sentences that would result in his immediate release. He directed the court's attention to petitioner's voluntary confession, explaining that petitioner had refused to identify other members of the conspiracy because he "wasn't that involved in it." App. 30. The prosecutor responded that the request for probation was "ironic" in light of petitioner's refusal to cooperate in the investigation over the course of "many, many years, knowing what he faces." Id. at 36. Thus, the Government could not ask the court "to take into account some extenuating and mitigating circumstances, that the defendant has cooperated. . . ." Ibid. Stressing the seriousness of the offense and the absence of excuse or mitigation, the Government recommended a substantial prison term.

The District Court imposed consecutive sentences of one to four years on each count and a special parole term of three years, but it declined to impose a fine. The court explained that these sentences were appropriate because petitioner was on parole from a bank robbery conviction at the time of the offenses, and because he was a dealer who had refused to cooperate with the Government.3 Petitioner again appealed,

Page 556

[100 S.Ct. 1362] contending for the first time that the sentencing court should not have considered his failure to cooperate. The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit vacated the special parole term, but otherwise affirmed the judgment. 195 U.S.App.D.C. 1, 600 F.2d 815 (1979). We granted certiorari, 444 U.S. 822 (1979), and we now affirm.


The principles governing criminal sentencing in the United States district courts require no extensive elaboration. Congress has directed that

[n]o limitation shall be placed on the information concerning the background, character, and conduct of a person convicted of an offense which a court of the United States may receive and consider for the purpose of imposing an appropriate sentence.

18 U.S.C. § 3577. See also 21 U.S.C. § 850. This Court has reviewed in detail the history and philosophy of the modern conception that "the punishment should fit the offender, and not merely the crime." Williams v. New York, 337 U.S. 241, 247 (1949); see United States v. Grayson, 438 U.S. 41, 45-50 (1978). Two Terms ago, we reaffirmed the "fundamental sentencing principle" that

"a judge may appropriately conduct an inquiry broad in scope, largely unlimited either as to the kind of information he may consider or the source from which it may come."

Id. at 50, quoting United States v. Tucker, 404 U.S. 443, 446 (1972). See also Pennsylvania v. Ashe, 302 U.S. 51, 55 (1937). We have, however, sustained due process objections to sentences imposed on the basis of "misinformation of constitutional magnitude." United States v. Tucker, supra at 447; see Townsend v. Burke, 334 U.S. 736, 740-741 (1948).

Page 557

No such misinformation was present in this case. The sentencing court relied upon essentially undisputed facts. There is no question that petitioner rebuffed repeated requests for his cooperation over a period of three years. Nor does petitioner contend that he was unable to provide the requested assistance. Indeed, petitioner concedes that cooperation with the authorities is a "laudable endeavor" that bears a "rational connection to a defendant's willingness to shape up and change his behavior. . . ." Brief for Petitioner 17.4 Unless a different explanation is...

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