526 U.S. 227 (1999), 97-6203, Jones v. United States

Docket Nº:Case No. 97-6203
Citation:526 U.S. 227, 119 S.Ct. 1215, 143 L.Ed.2d 311, 67 U.S.L.W. 4204
Case Date:March 24, 1999
Court:United States Supreme Court

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526 U.S. 227 (1999)

119 S.Ct. 1215, 143 L.Ed.2d 311, 67 U.S.L.W. 4204




Case No. 97-6203

United States Supreme Court

March 24, 1999

Argued October 5, 1998



Petitioner was charged with, inter alia, carjacking, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2119, which at the time provided, as relevant here, that a person possessing a firearm who "takes a motor vehicle . . . from the person or presence of another by force and violence or by intimidation . . . shall—(1) be . . . imprisoned not more than 15 years . . ., (2) if serious bodily injury . . . results, be . . . imprisoned not more than 25 years . . ., and (3) if death results, be . . . imprisoned for any number of years up to life . . . ." The indictment made no reference to § 2119's numbered subsections and charged none of the facts mentioned in the latter two. Petitioner was told at the arraignment that he faced a maximum 15-year sentence for carjacking, and the jury instructions at his trial defined that offense by reference solely to § 2119(1). After he was found guilty, however, the District Court imposed a 25-year sentence on the carjacking charge because one victim suffered serious bodily injury. The court rejected petitioner's objection that serious bodily injury was an element of the offense, which had been neither pleaded in the indictment nor proven before the jury. In affirming, the Ninth Circuit agreed that § 2119(2) set out a sentencing factor, not an element of an independent offense.


Section 2119 establishes three separate offenses by the specification of elements, each of which must be charged by indictment, proven beyond a reasonable doubt, and submitted to a jury for its verdict. Pp. 232-252.

(a) The superficial impression that § 2119's subsections are only sentencing provisions loses clarity when one looks at subsections (2) and(3), which not only provide for steeply higher penalties, but condition them on further facts (injury, death) that seem quite as important as the elements in the principal paragraph (force, violence, intimidation). The Government stresses that the numbered subsections do not stand alone in defining offenses, most of whose elements are set out in the statute's opening paragraph, and that this integrated structure suggests that the statute establishes only a single offense. The Government also argues that the numbered subsections come after the word "shall," which often divides offense-defining provisions from those that specify sentences. A number of countervailing structural considerations, however,

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weaken those points. First, if the shorter subsection (2) does not stand alone, neither does § 2119's more voluminous first paragraph, which by itself would merely describe some obnoxious behavior, never actually telling the reader that it is a crime. Only the numbered subsections complete the thought. Second, "shall" does not invariably separate offense-defining clauses from sentencing provisions. Section 2119's text alone does not justify any confident inference. Statutory drafting, however, occurs against a backdrop not merely of structural conventions of varying significance, but of traditional treatment of certain categories of important facts, like degree of injury to victims, in relation to particular crimes. If a statute is unclear about whether it treats a fact as element or penalty aggravator, it makes sense to look at what other statutes have done, since Congress is unlikely to intend any radical departures from past practice without making a point of saying so. See Almendarez-Torres v. United States, 523 U.S. 224, 230. Here, a search for comparable examples suggests that Congress had separate and aggravated offenses in mind when it employed numbered subsections in § 2119, for it unmistakably identified serious bodily injury or related facts of violence as an offense element in several other federal statutes, including two of the three robbery statutes on which it modeled the carjacking statute. This conclusion is bolstered by the States' practice of treating serious bodily injury as an element defining a distinct offense of aggravated robbery. Neither a 1996 amendment to the statute nor the statute's legislative history supports the Government's reading. Pp. 232-239.

(b) The Government's construction of the statute would raise a serious constitutional question under the Fifth Amendment's Due Process Clause and the Sixth Amendment's notice and jury trial guarantees: when a jury determination has not been waived, may judicial factfinding by a preponderance support the application of a provision that increases the potential severity of the penalty for a variant of a given crime? Although this question has been recognized in a series of cases over the past quarter century, see, e. g., Mullaney v. Wilbur, 421 U.S. 684, it has not been resolved by those cases, see, e. g., Almendarez-Torres v. United States, supra. Any doubt on the issue of statutory construction should thus be resolved in favor of avoiding the question, under the rule that, "where a statute is susceptible of two constructions, by one of which grave and doubtful constitutional questions arise and by the other of which such questions are avoided, [this Court's] duty is to adopt the latter." United States ex rel. Attorney General v. Delaware & Hudson Co., 213 U.S. 366, 408. Pp. 239-252.

116 F.3d 1487, reversed and remanded.

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Souter, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Stevens, Scalia, Thomas, and Ginsburg, JJ., joined. Stevens, J., post, p. 252, and Scalia, J., post, p. 253, filed concurring opinions. Kennedy, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and O'Connor and Breyer, JJ., joined, post, p. 254.

Quin Denvir argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the briefs were Francine Zepeda and John P. Balazs.

Edward C. DuMont argued the cause for the United States. With him on the brief were Solicitor General Waxman, Assistant Attorney General Robinson, Deputy Solicitor General Dreeben, and Nina Goodman.[*]

Justice Souter delivered the opinion of the Court.

This case turns on whether the federal carjacking statute, 18 U.S.C. § 2119, as it was when petitioner was charged, defined three distinct offenses or a single crime with a choice of three maximum penalties, two of them dependent on sentencing factors exempt from the requirements of charge and jury verdict. We think the better reading is of three distinct offenses, particularly in light of the rule that any interpretive uncertainty should be resolved to avoid serious questions about the statute's constitutionality.


In December 1992, petitioner, Nathaniel Jones, and two others, Oliver and McMillan, held up two men, Mutanna and Mardaie. While Jones and McMillan went through the victims' pockets, Oliver stuck his gun in Mutanna's left ear, and later struck him on the head. Oliver and McMillan made their getaway in the Cadillac Jones had driven to the scene, while Jones forced Mardaie into Mutanna's Honda and drove off after them. After stopping to put Mardaie out, Jones

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sped away in the stolen car subject to police pursuit, which ended when Jones crashed into a telephone pole. United States v. Oliver, 60 F.3d 547, 549 (CA9 1995); Tr. 159, 387, 310 (July 27-28, 1993).

A grand jury in the Eastern District of California indicted Jones and his two accomplices on two counts: using or aiding and abetting the use of a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c), and carjacking or aiding and abetting carjacking, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2119, which then read as follows:

"Whoever, possessing a firearm as defined in section 921 of this title, takes a motor vehicle that has been transported, shipped, or received in interstate or foreign commerce from the person or presence of another by force and violence or by intimidation, or attempts to do so, shall—

"(1) be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 15 years, or both,

"(2) if serious bodily injury (as defined in section 1365 of this title) results, be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 25 years, or both, and

"(3) if death results, be fined under this title or imprisoned for any number of years up to life, or both." 18 U.S.C. § 2119 (1988 ed., Supp. V).[1]

The indictment made no reference to the statute's numbered subsections and charged none of the facts mentioned in the latter two, and at the arraignment the Magistrate Judge told

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Jones that he faced a maximum sentence of 15 years on the carjacking charge. App. 4-5, 7. Consistently with this advice, the District Court's subsequent jury instructions defined the elements subject to the Government's burden of proof by reference solely to the first paragraph of § 2119, with no mention of serious bodily injury. Id., at 10. The jury found Jones guilty on both counts.

The case took a new turn, however, with the arrival of the presentence report, which recommended that petitioner be sentenced to 25 years for the carjacking because one of the victims had suffered serious bodily injury. The report noted that Mutanna had testified that Oliver's gun caused profuse bleeding in Mutanna's ear, and that a physician had concluded that Mutanna had suffered a perforated eardrum, with some numbness and permanent hearing loss. Id., at 15-16; 60 F.3d, at 554. Jones objected that the 25-year recommendation was out of bounds, since serious bodily injury was an element of the offense defined in part by § 2119(2), which had been neither pleaded in the indictment nor proven before the jury. App. 12-13. The District Court saw the matter differently and, based on its finding that the serious bodily injury allegation was supported by a preponderance of the evidence, imposed a 25-year sentence...

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