United States v. Batchelder, No. 78-776

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtMARSHALL
Citation60 L.Ed.2d 755,442 U.S. 114,99 S.Ct. 2198
Decision Date04 June 1979
Docket NumberNo. 78-776
PartiesUNITED STATES, Petitioner, v. Milton Dean BATCHELDER

442 U.S. 114
99 S.Ct. 2198
60 L.Ed.2d 755
UNITED STATES, Petitioner,

v.

Milton Dean BATCHELDER.

No. 78-776.
Argued April 18, 1979.
Decided June 4, 1979.
Syllabus

Respondent was found guilty of violating 18 U.S.C. § 922(h), which is part of Title IV of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 (Act). That provision prohibits previously convicted felons from receiving a firearm that has traveled in interstate commerce. The District Court sentenced respondent under 18 U.S.C. § 924(a) to five years' imprisonment, the maximum term authorized for violation of § 922(h). The Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction but remanded for resentencing. Noting that the substantive elements of § 922(h) and 18 U.S.C.App. § 1202(a), which is contained in Title VII of the Act, are identical as applied to a convicted felon who unlawfully receives a firearm, the court interpreted the Act to allow no more than the 2-year maximum sentence provided by § 1202(a).

Held: A defendant convicted of violating § 922(h) is properly sentenced under § 924(a) even though his conduct also violates § 1202(a). Pp. 118-126.

(a) Nothing in the language, structure, or legislative history of the Act suggests that because of the overlap between §§ 922(h) and 1202(a), a defendant convicted under § 922(h) may be imprisoned for no more than the maximum term specified in § 1202(a). Rather, each substantive statute, in conjunction with its own sentencing provision operates independently of the other. Pp. 118-121.

(b) The Court of Appeals erroneously relied on three principles of statutory interpretation in construing § 1202(a) to override the penalties authorized by § 924(a). The doctrine that ambiguities in criminal statutes must be resolved in favor of lenity is not applicable here since there is no ambiguity to resolve. Nor can § 1202(a) be interpreted as implicitly repealing § 924(a) whenever a defendant's conduct might violate both sections. Legislative intent to repeal must be manifest in the " 'positive repugnancy between the provisions.' " United States v. Borden Co., 308 U.S. 188, 199, 60 S.Ct. 182, 188, 84 L.Ed. 181. In this case, the penalty provisions are fully capable of coexisting because they apply to convictions under different statutes. Finally, the maxim that statutes should be construed to avoid constitutional questions offers no assistance here, since this principle applies only when an alternative interpretation is fairly possible from the language of the statute. There is simply no basis in

Page 115

the Act for reading the term "five" in § 924(a) to mean "two." Pp. 121-122.

(c) The statutory provisions at issue are not void for vagueness because they unambiguously specify the activity proscribed and the penalties available upon conviction. Although the statutes create uncertainty as to which crime may be charged and therefore what penalties may be imposed, they do so to no greater extent that would a single statute authorizing alternative punishments. So long as overlapping criminal provisions clearly define the conduct prohibited and the punishment authorized, the notice requirements of the Due Process Clause are satisfied. P.123

(d) Nor are the statutes unconstitutional under the equal protection component or Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment on the theory that they allow the prosecutor unfettered discretion in selecting which of two penalties to apply. A prosecutor's discretion to choose between §§ 922(h) and 1202(a) is not "unfettered"; selectivity in the enforcement of criminal laws is subject to constitutional constraints. Whether to prosecute and what charge to file or bring before a grand jury are decisions that generally rest in the prosecutor's discretion. Just as a defendant has no constitutional right to elect which of two applicable federal statutes shall be the basis of his indictment and prosecution, neither is he entitled to choose the penalty scheme under which he will be sentenced. Pp. 123-125.

(e) The statutes are not unconstitutional as impermissibly delegating to the Executive Branch the Legislature's responsibility to fix criminal penalties. Having clearly informed the courts, prosecutors, and defendants of the permissible punishment alternatives available under each statute, Congress has fulfilled its duty. Pp.125-126.

581 F.2d 626, reversed.

Andrew J. Levander, Washington, D.C., for petitioner, pro hac vice.

Charles A. Bellows, Chicago, Ill., for respondent.

Mr. Justice MARSHALL delivered the opinion of the Court.

At issue in this case are two overlapping provisions of the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 (Omnibus Act). 1

Page 116

sBoth prohibit convicted felons from receivingfirearms, but each authorizes different maximum penalties. We must determine whether a defendant convicted of the offense carrying the greater penalty may be sentenced only under the more lenient provision when his conduct violates both statutes.

I

Respondent, a previously convicted felon, was found guilty of receiving a firearm that had traveled in interstate commerce, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 922(h).2 The District Court sentenced him under 18 U.S.C. § 924(a) to five years' imprisonment, the maximum term authorized for violation of § 922(h).3

The Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction but, by a divided vote, remanded for resentencing. 581 F.2d 626 (CA7 1978). The majority recognized that respondent had been indicted and convicted under § 922(h) and that § 924(a) permits five years' imprisonment for such violations. 581 F.2d, at 629. However, noting that the substantive elements

Page 117

of § 922(h) and 18 U.S.C.App. § 1202(a) are identical as applied to a convicted felon who unlawfully receives a firearm, the court interpreted the Omnibus Act to allow no more than the 2-year maximum sentence provided by § 1202(a). 581 F.2d, at 629.4 In so holding, the Court of Appeals relied on three principles of statutory construction. Because, in its view, the "arguably contradict[ory]" penalty provisions for similar conduct and the "inconclusive" legislative history raised doubt whether Congress had intended the two penalty provisions to coexist, the court first applied the doctrine that ambiguities in criminal legislation are to be resolved in favor of the defendant. Id. at 630. Second, the court determined that since § 1202(a) was "Congress' last word on the issue of penalty," it may have implicitly repealed the punishment provisions of § 924(a). 581 F.2d, at 630. Acknowledging that the "first two principles cannot be applied to these facts without some difficulty," the majority also invoked the maxim that a court should, if possible, interpret a statute to avoid constitutional questions. Id., at 630-631. Here, the court reasoned, the "prosecutor's power to select one of two statutes that are identical except for their penalty provisions" implicated "important constitutional protections." Id., at 631.

Page 118

The dissent found no basis in the Omnibus Act or its legislative history for engrafting the penalty provisions of § 1202(a) onto §§ 922(h) and 924(a). 581 F.2d, at 638-639. Relying on "the long line of cases . . . which hold that where an act may violate more than one criminal statute, the government may elect to prosecute under either, even if [the] defendant risks the harsher penalty, so long as the prosecutor does not discriminate against any class of defendants," the dissent further concluded that the statutory scheme was constitutional. Id., at 637.

We granted certiorari, 439 U.S. 1066, 99 S.Ct. 830, 59 L.Ed.2d 30 (1979), and now reverse the judgment vacating respondent's 5-year prison sentence.

II

This Court has previously noted the partial redundancy of §§ 922(h) and 1202(a), both as to the conduct they proscribe and the individuals they reach. See United States v. Bass, 404 U.S. 336, 341-343, and n.9, 92 S.Ct. 515, 519-20, 30 L.Ed.2d 488 (1971). However, we find nothing in the language, structure, or legislative history of the Omnibus Act to suggest that because of this overlap, a defendant convicted under § 922(h) may be imprisoned for no more than the maximum term specified in § 1202(a). As we read the Act, each substantive statute, in conjunction with its own sentencing provision, operates independently of the other.

Section 922(h), contained in Title IV of the Omnibus Act, prohibits four categories of individuals from receiving "any firearm or ammunition which has been shipped or transported in interstate or foreign commerce." See n.2, supra. Persons who violate Title IV are subject to the penalties provided by § 924(a), which authorizes a maximum fine of $5,000 and imprisonment for up to five years. See n.3, supra. Section 1202(a), located in Title VII of the Omnibus Act, forbids five categories of individuals from "receiv[ing], possess[ing], or transport[ing] in commerce or affecting commerce . . . any firearm." This same section authorizes a maximum fine of

Page 119

$10,000 and imprisonment for not more than two years. See n.4, supra.

While §§ 922 and 1202(a) both prohibit convicted felons such as petitioner from receiving firearms 5 each Title unambiguously specifies the penalties available to enforce its substantive proscriptions. Section 924(a) applies without exception to "[w]hoever violates any provision" of Title IV, and § 922(h) is patently such a provision. See 18 U.S.C., ch. 44; 82 Stat. 226, 234; S.Rep. No. 1097, 90th Cong., 2d Sess., 20-25, 117 (1968); U.S.Code Cong. & Admin.News 1968, p. 2112. Similarly, because Title VII's substantive prohibitions and penalties are both enumerated in § 1202, its penalty scheme encompasses only criminal prosecutions brought under that provision. On their face, these statutes thus establish that § 924(a) alone delimits the appropriate punishment for violations of § 922(h).

That Congress intended to enact two independent gun control statutes, each fully enforceable on its...

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  • Lebar v. Thompson, CIVIL NO. 3:CV-08-0072
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Middle District of Pennsylvania
    • May 13, 2013
    ...it "fails to give a person of ordinary intelligence fair notice that his contemplated conduct is forbidden." United States v. Batchelder, 442 U.S. 114, 123 (1979)(internal quotation omitted); see also, United States v. Williams, 553 U.S. 285, 304 (2008). "[P]erfect clarity and precise guida......
  • Hill v. Sec. & Exch. Comm'n, Civil Action No. 1:15–CV–1801–LMM.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 11th Circuit. United States District Courts. 11th Circuit. Northern District of Georgia
    • June 8, 2015
    ...and courts consistently reject non-delegation challenges to prosecutorial-discretion-related decisions. See United States v. Batchelder, 442 U.S. 114, 126, 99 S.Ct. 2198, 60 L.Ed.2d 755 (1979) (rejecting a non-delegation challenge where "the power that Congress has delegated to those offici......
  • U.S. v. Mayo, Nos. 631
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (2nd Circuit)
    • April 8, 1983
    ...require the government to elect between prosecuting him under either section 922(a)(1) or section 1202. See United States v. Batchelder, 442 U.S. 114, 99 S.Ct. 2198, 60 L.Ed.2d 755 (1979). We will not resolve this thorny issue which has the circuits divided, compare United States v. Larrana......
  • Lowery v. Anderson, No. IP 96-71-C-H/G.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 7th Circuit. United States District Court (Southern District of Indiana)
    • July 6, 1999
    ...judicial intrusion into prosecutorial decisions is justified only when the Constitution requires it. See United States v. Batchelder, 442 U.S. 114, 125, 99 S.Ct. 2198, 60 L.Ed.2d 755 (1979). The Constitution does not require the judicial intrusion into the prosecutor's decision that Lowery ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
1616 cases
  • Lebar v. Thompson, CIVIL NO. 3:CV-08-0072
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Middle District of Pennsylvania
    • May 13, 2013
    ...it "fails to give a person of ordinary intelligence fair notice that his contemplated conduct is forbidden." United States v. Batchelder, 442 U.S. 114, 123 (1979)(internal quotation omitted); see also, United States v. Williams, 553 U.S. 285, 304 (2008). "[P]erfect clarity and precise guida......
  • Hill v. Sec. & Exch. Comm'n, Civil Action No. 1:15–CV–1801–LMM.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 11th Circuit. United States District Courts. 11th Circuit. Northern District of Georgia
    • June 8, 2015
    ...and courts consistently reject non-delegation challenges to prosecutorial-discretion-related decisions. See United States v. Batchelder, 442 U.S. 114, 126, 99 S.Ct. 2198, 60 L.Ed.2d 755 (1979) (rejecting a non-delegation challenge where "the power that Congress has delegated to those offici......
  • U.S. v. Mayo, Nos. 631
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (2nd Circuit)
    • April 8, 1983
    ...require the government to elect between prosecuting him under either section 922(a)(1) or section 1202. See United States v. Batchelder, 442 U.S. 114, 99 S.Ct. 2198, 60 L.Ed.2d 755 (1979). We will not resolve this thorny issue which has the circuits divided, compare United States v. Larrana......
  • Lowery v. Anderson, No. IP 96-71-C-H/G.
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 7th Circuit. United States District Court (Southern District of Indiana)
    • July 6, 1999
    ...judicial intrusion into prosecutorial decisions is justified only when the Constitution requires it. See United States v. Batchelder, 442 U.S. 114, 125, 99 S.Ct. 2198, 60 L.Ed.2d 755 (1979). The Constitution does not require the judicial intrusion into the prosecutor's decision that Lowery ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
2 firm's commentaries
  • Fifth Circuit Holds SEC's In-House Forum Is Unconstitutional
    • United States
    • Mondaq United States
    • May 30, 2022
    ..."forum-selection authority" to be "part and parcel of its prosecutorial authority," and therefore (under United States v. Batchelder, 442 U.S. 114 (1979)) the delegation of such authority did not violate the nondelegation doctrine. Jarkesy, slip op. at 45-46. Finally, the dissent reasoned t......
  • Fifth Circuit Holds SEC's In-House Forum is Unconstitutional
    • United States
    • JD Supra United States
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    ...m-selection authority” to be “pa rt and par cel of itsprosecutor ial authority,” and there fore (und er United States v. Batchelder , 442 U.S. 114 (1979) ) thedelegation of such authority did not violate the nondelegation doctrine. Jark esy, slip op. at 45 –46.Finally, the disse nt reasoned......
4 books & journal articles
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    • American Criminal Law Review Nbr. 58-3, July 2021
    • July 1, 2021
    ...may prosecute under either so long as it does not discriminate against any class of defendants.” (quoting United States v. Batchelder, 442 U.S. 114, 123–24 (1979))). 135. See United States v. Sherman, 150 F.3d 306, 312–13 (stating §§ 1621 and 1623 are independent statutes and the government......
  • THE TRAJECTORY OF FEDERAL GUN CRIMES.
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    • University of Pennsylvania Law Review Vol. 170 Nbr. 3, February 2022
    • February 1, 2022
    ...212 (1976); Scarborough v. United States, 431 U.S. 563 (1977); Simpson v. United States, 435 U.S. 6 (1978); United States v. Batchelder, 442 U.S. 114 (1979); Lewis v. United States, 445 U.S. 55 (1980); Busic v. United States, 446 U.S. 398 (1980); Dickerson v. New Banner Inst., 460 U.S. 103 ......
  • Equal Protection and the Unborn Child: A Dobbs Brief.
    • United States
    • Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy Vol. 45 Nbr. 3, June 2022
    • June 22, 2022
    ...517 U.S. 456, 464-65 (1996): [A] prosecutor's discretion is "subject to constitutional constraints." United States v. Batchelder, 442 U.S. 114, 125 (1979). One of these constraints, imposed by the equal protection component of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment, Bolling v. Sharpe......
  • DELEGATION, ADMINISTRATION, AND IMPROVISATION.
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    • Notre Dame Law Review Vol. 97 Nbr. 1, November 2021
    • November 1, 2021
    ...in original) (quoting Passenger Laws.--Pardoning Power, 6 Op. Att'y Gen. 393, 403 (1854)). (273) See United States v. Batchelder, 442 U.S. 114, 124 (1979) ("[W]hat charge to file or bring before a grand jury are decisions that generally rest in the prosecutor's (274) The same is arguably no......

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