United States v. Cotton, No. 01-687.

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Citation535 U.S. 625
Docket NumberNo. 01-687.
PartiesUNITED STATES <I>v.</I> COTTON ET AL.
Decision Date20 May 2002

Page 625

535 U.S. 625
UNITED STATES
v.
COTTON ET AL.
No. 01-687.
Supreme Court of the United States.
Argued April 15, 2002.
Decided May 20, 2002.

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FOURTH CIRCUIT

A federal grand jury returned an indictment charging respondents with conspiracy to distribute and to possess with intent to distribute a "detectable amount" of cocaine and cocaine base. Respondents were convicted and received a sentence based on the District Court's finding of drug quantity — at least 50 grams of cocaine base — that implicated the enhanced penalties of 21 U. S. C. § 841(b). They did not object in the District Court to the fact that the sentences were based on a quantity not alleged in the indictment. While their appeal was pending, this Court decided, in Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U. S. 466, 490, that "[o]ther than the fact of a prior conviction, any fact that increases the penalty for a crime beyond the prescribed statutory maximum must be submitted to a jury, and proved beyond a reasonable doubt." In federal prosecutions, such facts must also be charged in the indictment. Id., at 476. Respondents then argued in the Fourth Circuit that their sentences were invalid under Apprendi, because the drug quantity issue was neither alleged in the indictment nor submitted to the petit jury. That court vacated the sentences on the ground that it had no jurisdiction to impose a sentence for an offense not charged in the indictment.

Held:

1. A defective indictment does not deprive a court of jurisdiction. Ex parte Bain, 121 U. S. 1, the progenitor of the Fourth Circuit's view that the indictment errors are "jurisdictional," is a product of an era in which this Court's authority to review criminal convictions was greatly circumscribed. It could examine constitutional errors in a criminal trial only on a writ of habeas corpus, and only then if it deemed the error "jurisdictional." The Court's desire to correct obvious constitutional violations led to a "somewhat expansive notion of `jurisdiction,'" Custis v. United States, 511 U. S. 485, 494, which is not what the term means today, i. e., "the courts' statutory or constitutional power to adjudicate the case," Steel Co. v. Citizens for Better Environment, 523 U. S. 83, 89. Because subject-matter jurisdiction involves a court's power to hear a case, it can never be forfeited or waived. Thus, defects require correction regardless of whether the error was raised in district court. But a grand jury right can be waived. Post-Bain cases confirm that

Page 626

indictment defects do not deprive a court of its power to adjudicate a case. See, e. g., Lamar v. United States, 240 U. S. 60. Thus, this Court some time ago departed from Bain's view that indictment defects are "jurisdictional." Stirone v. United States, 361 U. S. 212; Russell v. United States, 369 U. S. 749, distinguished. Insofar as it held that a defective indictment deprives a court of jurisdiction, Bain is overruled. Pp. 629-631.

2. The omission from a federal indictment of a fact that enhances the statutory maximum sentence does not justify a court of appeals' vacating the enhanced sentence, even though the defendant did not object in the trial court. Under Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 52(b)'s plain-error test, where there is an "(1) error, (2) that is plain, and (3) that affects substantial rights," an appellate court may correct an error not raised at trial, "but only if (4) the error seriously affects the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of judicial proceedings." Johnson v. United States, 520 U. S. 461, 466-467 (internal quotation marks omitted). The Government concedes that the indictment's failure to allege a fact that increased the sentences was plain error. But, even assuming the error affected respondents' substantial rights, it did not seriously affect the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of judicial proceedings. The evidence that the conspiracy involved at least 50 grams of cocaine base was "overwhelming" and "essentially uncontroverted." It is true that the Fifth Amendment grand jury right serves a vital function in providing for a body of citizens that acts as a check on prosecutorial power, but that is no less true of the Sixth Amendment right to a petit jury, which must find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The petit jury's important role did not, however, prevent the Johnson Court from applying the longstanding rule "that a constitutional right may be forfeited in criminal as well as civil cases by the failure to make timely assertion of the right." Yakus v. United States, 321 U. S. 414, 444. The real threat to the "fairness, integrity, or public reputation of judicial proceedings" would be if respondents, despite the overwhelming and uncontroverted evidence that they were involved in a vast drug conspiracy, were to receive a sentence prescribed for those committing less substantial drug offenses because of an error that was never objected to at trial. Pp. 631-634.

261 F. 3d 397, reversed and remanded.

REHNQUIST, C. J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

Deputy Solicitor General Dreeben argued the cause for the United States. With him on the briefs were Solicitor

Page 627

General Olson, Assistant Attorney General Chertoff, Barbara McDowell, and Nina Goodman.

Timothy J. Sullivan argued the cause for respondents. With him on the brief were Arthur S. Cheslock, James E. McCollum, Jr., Carter G. Phillips, Jeffrey T. Green, Paul J. Zidlicky, and Stanley H. Needleman.*

CHIEF JUSTICE REHNQUIST delivered the opinion of the Court.


In Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U. S. 466 (2000), we held that "[o]ther than the fact of a prior conviction, any fact that increases the penalty for a crime beyond the prescribed statutory maximum must be submitted to a jury, and proved beyond a reasonable doubt." Id., at 490. In federal prosecutions, such facts must also be charged in the indictment. Id., at 476 (quoting Jones v. United States, 526 U. S. 227, 243, n. 6 (1999)). In this case, we address whether the omission from a federal indictment of a fact that enhances the statutory maximum sentence justifies a court of appeals' vacating the enhanced sentence, even though the defendant did not object in the trial court.

Respondent Stanley Hall, Jr., led a "vast drug organization" in Baltimore. 261 F. 3d 397, 401 (CA4 2001). The six other respondents helped run the operation. In October 1997, a federal grand jury returned an indictment charging respondents with conspiring to distribute and to possess with intent to distribute 5 kilograms or more of cocaine and 50 grams or more of cocaine base, in violation of 21 U. S. C. §§ 846 and 841(a)(1). A superseding indictment returned in March 1998, which extended the time period of the conspiracy and added five more defendants, charged a conspiracy to

Page 628

distribute and to possess with intent to distribute a "detectable amount" of cocaine and cocaine base. The superseding indictment did not allege any of the threshold levels of drug quantity that lead to enhanced penalties under § 841(b).

In accord with the superseding indictment, the District Court instructed the jury that "as long as you find that a defendant conspired to distribute or posses[s] with intent to distribute these controlled substances, the amounts involved are not important." App. to Pet. for Cert. 6a (emphasis deleted). The jury found respondents guilty.

Congress established "a term of imprisonment of not more than 20 years" for drug offenses involving a detectable quantity of cocaine or cocaine base. § 841(b)(1)(C). But the District Court did not sentence respondents under this provision. Consistent with the practice in federal courts at the time, at sentencing the District Court made a finding of drug quantity that implicated the enhanced penalties of § 841(b)(1)(A), which prescribes "a term of imprisonment which may not be ... more than life" for drug offenses involving at least 50 grams of cocaine base. The District Court found, based on the trial testimony, respondent Hall responsible for at least 500 grams of cocaine base, and the other respondents responsible for at least 1.5 kilograms of cocaine base. The court sentenced respondents...

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2634 practice notes
  • U.S. v. Garcia, Docket No. 03-1407-CR(L).
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Second Circuit
    • June 21, 2005
    ...it must seriously affect the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of judicial proceedings); accord United Page 220 States v. Cotton, 535 U.S. 625, 631-32, 122 S.Ct. 1781, 152 L.Ed.2d 860 (2002); see also Fed.R.Crim.P. 52(b). Since Booker, our court has recognized that the mandatory app......
  • United States v. Scruggs, CRIMINAL CASE NO. 3:09-CR-00002-GHD
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 5th Circuit. United States District Courts. 5th Circuit. Northern District of Mississippi
    • May 23, 2012
    ...... [and] [t]he objection that the indictment does not charge a crime against the United States goes only to the merits of the case." 535 U.S. 625, 630-31, 122 S. Ct. 1781, 152 L. Ed. 2d 860 (2002) (citing Lamar v. United States, 240 U.S. 60, 65, 36 S. Ct. 255, 60 L. Ed. 526 (1916)). The Fi......
  • State v. Wayfair, Inc., 3:16–CV–03019–RAL
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — District of South Dakota
    • January 17, 2017
    ...the parties or by the court itself, and 229 F.Supp.3d 1030cannot be forfeited or waived. 28 U.S.C. § 1447(c) ; United States v. Cotton , 535 U.S. 625, 630, 122 S.Ct. 1781, 152 L.Ed.2d 860 (2002) ; Ruhrgas AG v. Marathon Oil Co. , 526 U.S. 574, 583, 119 S.Ct. 1563, 143 L.Ed.2d 760 (1999). A ......
  • Harris v. United States, No. 09-421C
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (District of Columbia)
    • November 21, 2011
    ...to hear a case, can never be forfeited or waived.'" Arbaugh v. Y & H Corp., 546 U.S. 500, 514 (2006) (quoting United States v. Cotton, 535 U.S. 625, 630 (2002)); see also Ford Motor Co. v. United States, 635 F.3d 550, 556 (Fed. Cir. 2011) (quoting Arbaugh v. Y & H Corp., 546 U.S. at 514) ("......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
2618 cases
  • U.S. v. Garcia, Docket No. 03-1407-CR(L).
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Second Circuit
    • June 21, 2005
    ...it must seriously affect the fairness, integrity, or public reputation of judicial proceedings); accord United Page 220 States v. Cotton, 535 U.S. 625, 631-32, 122 S.Ct. 1781, 152 L.Ed.2d 860 (2002); see also Fed.R.Crim.P. 52(b). Since Booker, our court has recognized that the mandatory app......
  • United States v. Scruggs, CRIMINAL CASE NO. 3:09-CR-00002-GHD
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 5th Circuit. United States District Courts. 5th Circuit. Northern District of Mississippi
    • May 23, 2012
    ...... [and] [t]he objection that the indictment does not charge a crime against the United States goes only to the merits of the case." 535 U.S. 625, 630-31, 122 S. Ct. 1781, 152 L. Ed. 2d 860 (2002) (citing Lamar v. United States, 240 U.S. 60, 65, 36 S. Ct. 255, 60 L. Ed. 526 (1916)). The Fi......
  • State v. Wayfair, Inc., 3:16–CV–03019–RAL
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — District of South Dakota
    • January 17, 2017
    ...the parties or by the court itself, and 229 F.Supp.3d 1030cannot be forfeited or waived. 28 U.S.C. § 1447(c) ; United States v. Cotton , 535 U.S. 625, 630, 122 S.Ct. 1781, 152 L.Ed.2d 860 (2002) ; Ruhrgas AG v. Marathon Oil Co. , 526 U.S. 574, 583, 119 S.Ct. 1563, 143 L.Ed.2d 760 (1999). A ......
  • Harris v. United States, No. 09-421C
    • United States
    • United States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (District of Columbia)
    • November 21, 2011
    ...to hear a case, can never be forfeited or waived.'" Arbaugh v. Y & H Corp., 546 U.S. 500, 514 (2006) (quoting United States v. Cotton, 535 U.S. 625, 630 (2002)); see also Ford Motor Co. v. United States, 635 F.3d 550, 556 (Fed. Cir. 2011) (quoting Arbaugh v. Y & H Corp., 546 U.S. at 514) ("......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
2 books & journal articles
  • MAIL AND WIRE FRAUD
    • United States
    • American Criminal Law Review Nbr. 58-3, July 2021
    • July 1, 2021
    ...scheme where victims invested in letters of credit which were never purchased), overruled on other grounds by United States v. Cotton, 535 U.S. 625 (2002). 87. See, e.g., United States v. Brown, 186 F.3d 661, 665–67 (5th Cir. 1999) (aff‌irming mail fraud conviction based on auto dealership ......
  • FEDERAL CRIMINAL CONSPIRACY
    • United States
    • American Criminal Law Review Nbr. 58-3, July 2021
    • July 1, 2021
    ...a rational trier of fact could have found that a single conspiracy existed beyond areasonable doubt”).86. See United States v. Cotton, 535 U.S. 625, 631 (2002) (“[A]n indictment may not be amended except byresubmission to the grand jury, unless the change is merely a matter of form.” (quoti......

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