519 U.S. 148 (1997), 95-1906, United States v. Watts

Docket Nº:Case No. 95-1906
Citation:519 U.S. 148, 117 S.Ct. 633, 136 L.Ed.2d 554, 65 U.S.L.W. 3452, 65 U.S.L.W. 3461
Party Name:UNITED STATES v. WATTS
Case Date:January 06, 1997
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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Page 148

519 U.S. 148 (1997)

117 S.Ct. 633, 136 L.Ed.2d 554, 65 U.S.L.W. 3452, 65 U.S.L.W. 3461

UNITED STATES

v.

WATTS

Case No. 95-1906

United States Supreme Court

January 6, 1997[*]

ON PETITION FOR WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT

PER CURIAM

Syllabus

Respondent Watts was convicted of possessing cocaine base with intent to distribute, but acquitted of using a firearm in relation to a drug offense. Despite this, the District Court found by a preponderance of the evidence that Watts possessed guns in connection with the drug offense, and therefore added two points to his base offense level when calculating his sentence under the United States Sentencing Guidelines. In a separate case, respondent Putra was convicted of aiding and abetting possession with intent to distribute cocaine on May 8, 1992, but acquitted of aiding and abetting such a transaction on May 9. Finding by a preponderance of the evidence that she had been involved in the May 9 transaction, the District Court calculated her Guidelines' base offense level by aggregating the amounts of both sales. In each of these cases, the Ninth Circuit held that the sentencing courts could not consider respondents' conduct underlying the charges of which they had been acquitted.

Held:

A jury's verdict of acquittal does not prevent a sentencing court from considering conduct underlying the acquitted charge, so long as that conduct has been proved by a preponderance of the evidence. The Ninth Circuit's contrary holdings conflict with the clear implications of 18 U.S.C.§ 3661, the Guidelines, and this Court's double jeopardy decisions, particularly Witte v. United States, 515 U.S. 389. Section 3661 codifies the longstanding principle that sentencing courts have broad discretion to consider various kinds of information, including facts related to charges of which the defendant has been acquitted. Further, this Court has held that consideration of information about a defendant's character and conduct at sentencing does not result in punishment for any offense other than the crime of conviction. Id., at 401. In addition, acquittal merely proves, not that the defendant is innocent, but the existence of a reasonable doubt as to his guilt. Thus, an acquittal does not preclude the Government from relitigating an issue in a subsequent action governed by a lower standard of proof. Dowling v. United States, 493 U.S. 342, 349. The acquittals below shed no light on

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whether a preponderance of the evidence either established Putra's participation in the May 9 sale or Watts' use of a firearm in connection with a drug offense.

Certiorari granted; 67 F.3d 790 and 78 F.3d 1386, reversed and remanded.

In these two cases, two panels of the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that sentencing courts could not consider conduct of the defendants underlying charges of which they had been acquitted. United States v. Watts, 67F.3d 790 (CA9 1995) (Watts); United States v. Putra, 78F.3d 1386 (CA9 1996) (Putra). Every other Court of Appeals has held that a sentencing court may do so, if the Government establishes that conduct by a preponderance of the evidence.[1] The Government filed a single petition for certiorari seeking review of both cases, pursuant to this Court's Rule 12.4, to resolve this split. Because the panels' holdings conflict with the clear implications of 18 U.S.C. § 3661, the Sentencing Guidelines, and this Court's decisions, particularly Witte v. United States, 515 U.S. 389 (1995), we grant the petition and reverse in both cases.

In Watts, police discovered cocaine base in a kitchen cabinet and two loaded guns and ammunition hidden in a bedroom closet of Watts' house. A jury convicted Watts of possessing cocaine base with intent to distribute, in violation of

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21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1), but acquitted him of using a firearm in relation to a drug offense, in violation of 18 U.S.C.§ 924(c). Despite Watts' acquittal on the firearms count, the District Court found by a preponderance of the evidence that Watts had possessed the guns in connection with the drug offense. In calculating Watts' sentence, the court therefore added two points to his base offense level under United States Sentencing Commission, Guidelines Manual § 2D1.1(b)(1) (Nov. 1995) (USSG). The Court of Appeals vacated the sentence, holding that "a sentencing judge may not, 'under any standard of proof,' rely on facts of which the defendant was acquitted." 67 F.3d, at 797 (quoting United States v. Brady, 928 F.2d 844, 851, and n. 12 (CA9 1991), abrogated on other grounds, Nichols v. United States, 511 U.S. 738 (1994)) (emphasis added in Watts ). The Government argued that the District Court could have enhanced Watts' sentence without considering facts "necessarily rejected" by the jury's acquittal on the § 924(c) charge because the sentencing enhancement did not require a connection between the firearm and the predicate offense, whereas § 924(c) did. The court rejected this argument, stated that both the enhancement and § 924(c) involved such a connection, and held that the District Court had impermissibly "reconsider[ed] facts that the jury necessarily rejected by its acquittal of the defendant on another count." 67 F.3d, at 796.

In Putra, authorities had videotaped two transactions in which Putra and a codefendant (a major drug dealer) sold cocaine to a Government informant. The indictment charged Putra with, among other things, one count of aiding and abetting possession with intent to distribute one ounce of cocaine on May 8, 1992; and a second count of aiding and abetting possession with intent to distribute five ounces of cocaine on May 9, 1992, both in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1) and 18 U.S.C. § 2. The jury convicted Putra on the first count but acquitted her on the second. At sentencing, however, the District Court found by a preponderance

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of the evidence that Putra had indeed been involved in the May 9 transaction. The District Court explained that the second sale was relevant conduct under USSG § 1B1.3, and it therefore calculated Putra's base offense level under the Guidelines by aggregating the amounts of both sales. As in Watts, the Court of Appeals vacated and remanded for resentencing. Reasoning that the jury's verdict of acquittal manifested an "explicit rejection" of Putra's involvement in the May 9 transaction, the Court of Appeals held that "allowing an increase in Putra's sentence would be effectively punishing her for an offense for which she has been acquitted." 78 F.3d, at 1389. The panel explained that it was imposing "a judicial limitation on the facts the district court may consider at sentencing, beyond any limitation imposed by the Guidelines." Ibid. Then-Chief Judge Wallace dissented, arguing that the panel's "sweeping language contradicts the Guidelines, our practice prior to enactment of the Guidelines, decisions of other circuits, and recent Supreme Court authority." Id., at 1390.

We begin our analysis with 18 U.S.C. § 3661, which codifies the longstanding principle that sentencing courts have broad discretion to consider various kinds of information. The statute states:

"No 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."

We reiterated this principle in Williams v. New York, 337 U.S. 241 (1949), in which a defendant convicted of murder and sentenced to death challenged the sentencing court's reliance on information that the defendant had been involved in 30 burglaries of which he had not been convicted. We contrasted the different limitations on presentation of evidence at trial and at sentencing: "Highly relevant—if not essential#12; 12;

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—to [the judge's] selection of an appropriate sentence is the possession of the fullest information possible concerning the defendant's life and characteristics." Id., at 247 (footnote omitted); see Nichols, supra, at 747 (noting that sentencing courts have traditionally and constitutionally "considered a defendant's past criminal behavior, even if no conviction resulted from that behavior") (citing Williams, supra); BMW of North America, Inc. v. Gore, 517 U.S. 559, 573, n. 19 (1996) ("A sentencing judge may even consider past criminal behavior which did not result in a conviction") (citing Williams, supra ). Neither the broad language of § 3661 nor our holding in Williams suggests any basis for the courts to invent a blanket prohibition against considering certain types of evidence at sentencing. Indeed, under the pre-Guidelines sentencing regime, it was "well established that a sentencing judge may take into account facts introduced at trial relating to other charges, even ones of which the defendant has been acquitted." United States v. Donelson, 695 F.2d 583, 590 (CADC 1982) (Scalia, J.).

The Guidelines did not alter this aspect of the sentencing court's discretion. " '[V]ery roughly speaking, [relevant conduct] corresponds to those actions and circumstances that courts typically took into account when sentencing prior to the Guidelines' enactment.' " Witte, supra, at 402 (quoting United States v. Wright, 873 F.2d 437, 441 (CA1 1989) (Breyer, J.)). Section 1B1.4 of the Guidelines reflects the policy set forth in 18 U.S.C. § 3661:

"In determining the sentence to impose within the guideline range, or whether a departure from the guidelines is warranted, the court may consider, without limitation, any information concerning the background, character and conduct of the defendant, unless otherwise prohibited by law. See 18 U.S.C. § 3661."

Section 1B1.3, in turn, describes in sweeping language the...

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