United States v. Fields, 20-5521

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (6th Circuit)
Citation44 F.4th 490
Docket Number20-5521
Parties UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Timmy L. FIELDS, Defendant-Appellant.
Decision Date10 August 2022

44 F.4th 490

UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee,
Timmy L. FIELDS, Defendant-Appellant.

No. 20-5521

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit.

Argued: June 23, 2021
Decided and Filed: August 10, 2022

ARGUED: Michael J. Stengel, MICHAEL J. STENGEL, PC, Memphis, Tennessee, for Appellant. Andrew C. Noll, UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, Washington, D.C., for Appellee. ON BRIEF: Michael J. Stengel, MICHAEL J. STENGEL, PC, Memphis, Tennessee, for Appellant. Andrew C. Noll, UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, Washington, D.C., Charles P. Wisdom, Jr., Jenna E. Reed, R. Nicholas Rabold, UNITED STATES ATTORNEY'S OFFICE, Lexington, Kentucky, for Appellee.

Before: ROGERS, WHITE, and MURPHY, Circuit Judges.

WHITE, J., delivered the opinion of the court in which MURPHY, J., joined, and ROGERS, J., joined in part. MURPHY, J. (pp. 517–25), delivered a separate concurring opinion in which WHITE, J., joined except as to Part II.A. ROGERS, J. (pp. 525–26), delivered a separate opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part.

HELENE N. WHITE, Circuit Judge.

Defendant Timmy Fields appeals his twenty-five-year mandatory-minimum sentence enhancement imposed for his having

44 F.4th 494

committed two prior "serious drug felon[ies]." Fields challenges the procedure used to impose his enhancement and argues as well that neither prior conviction was for a "serious drug felony." Most of Field's challenges lack merit, but we agree that one of the predicate prior convictions was not for a "serious drug felony." Accordingly, we VACATE Fields's sentence and REMAND for resentencing.


In January 2020, a jury convicted Defendant Timmy Fields of possessing 500 grams or more of methamphetamine with intent to distribute, in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1). The district court imposed a statutory sentence enhancement under 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(A)(viii), finding that Fields had convictions for two previous "serious drug felon[ies]" in Kentucky—one for possessing a methamphetamine "precursor" with intent to manufacture, the other for trafficking in methamphetamine. Fields raises several challenges to the procedure used to impose the enhancement and the characterization of his prior offenses as "serious drug felonies."

A. Relevant Statutory and Legal Background

Section 841(b)(1)(A) provides for a twenty-five-year-minimum sentence enhancement if a defendant commits certain violations of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a) "after 2 or more prior convictions for a serious drug felony ... have become final[.]" Prior to the First Step Act, this enhancement provided for a mandatory life sentence after two prior final convictions for a "felony drug offense," which included certain drug-related state or federal offenses punishable by more than a year of imprisonment. 21 U.S.C. § 802(44) ; First Step Act of 2018, Pub. L. No. 115-391, § 401(a)(2)(A)(ii), 132 Stat. 5194, 5220. The First Step Act lowered this mandatory minimum to twenty-five years and replaced "felony drug offense" with a new term, "serious drug felony." First Step Act § 401(a)(1), (a)(2)(A)(ii). Relevant here, a "serious drug felony" is (1) a "serious drug offense" under 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(2)(A), for which the defendant (2) served over a year in prison and (3) was released within fifteen years of the commencement of the instant offense. 21 U.S.C. § 802(57).1

A "serious drug offense," as relevant here, means a state-law offense "involving manufacturing, distributing, or possessing with intent to manufacture or distribute, a controlled substance (as defined in [ 21 U.S.C. § 802 ]), for which a maximum term of imprisonment of ten years or more is prescribed by law." 18 U.S.C. § 924(e)(2)(A)(ii). So, in this case, prosecutors had to show two prior final convictions for "serious drug offenses" and prove that for each, Fields served over a year in prison and was released within 15 years of the commencement of the instant offense.

Another statutory provision, 21 U.S.C. § 851, governs the procedure for imposing conviction-based statutory sentence enhancements under § 841. Section 851(a) requires the government to file an "information" (often referred to as the " § 851 notice") informing the defendant of its intent to seek an enhancement based on prior convictions, "stating in writing the

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previous convictions to be relied upon." 21 U.S.C. § 851(a)(1). Section 851(b) provides that the court—after conviction but before pronouncing a sentence—must ask the defendant if he affirms or denies that he was previously convicted as alleged in the § 851 notice. Id. § 851(b). The court must also "inform [the defendant] that any challenge to a prior conviction which is not made before sentence is imposed may not thereafter be raised to attack the sentence." Id.

Section 851(c) provides that if the defendant "denies any allegation" in the § 851 notice or claims that any conviction is invalid, the defendant "shall file a written response[.]" Id. § 851(c)(1). Then, "[t]he court shall hold a hearing to determine any issues raised by the response which would except the person from increased punishment." Id. This "hearing shall be before the court without a jury[.]" Id. "[E]ither party may introduce evidence," and aside from an exception for claims that a prior conviction was obtained in violation of the Constitution, the government "shall have the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt on any issue of fact. At the request of either party, the court shall enter findings of fact and conclusions of law." Id. § 851(c)(1)-(2).

The Sixth Amendment requires that juries determine any facts (except the fact of a conviction) that increase a statutory maximum or mandatory-minimum punishment. Alleyne v. United States , 570 U.S. 99, 103, 111 n.1, 133 S.Ct. 2151, 186 L.Ed.2d 314 (2013) ; Apprendi v. New Jersey , 530 U.S. 466, 490, 120 S.Ct. 2348, 147 L.Ed.2d 435 (2000). Fields argues Alleyne requires that the First Step Act's incarceration facts—"the offender served a term of imprisonment of more than 12 months [for the prior offense]" and "the offender's release from any term of imprisonment was within 15 years of the commencement of the instant offense," § 802(57) —must go to a jury under Alleyne but that § 851 requires a judge to decide them, creating an unsolvable problem.

B. Factual Background

In April 2019, Kentucky police pulled Fields over and discovered 985 grams of methamphetamine in his vehicle. A few months later, a federal grand jury indicted Fields with one count of possession of 500 grams or more of methamphetamine with intent to distribute, in violation of 21 U.S.C § 841(a)(1). The indictment also alleged that Fields had two prior "final conviction[s] for ... serious drug felon[ies]" for which he served over a year in prison and was released within fifteen years of the instant offense. R. 1 PID 1-2. The first was for "Trafficking in a Controlled Substance in the First Degree," in violation of Ky. Rev. Stat. § 218A.1412 (the Trafficking Offense). Id. PID 1. The second was for "Unlawful Possession of a Methamphetamine Precursor and Persistent Felony Offender," in violation of Ky. Rev. Stat. §§ 218A.1437 & 532.080 (the Meth-Precursor Offense). Id. PID 1-2.

Before trial, the government filed a § 851 notice, stating its intent to seek a sentence enhancement based on these two prior convictions. The government also filed a pretrial motion—which Fields did not oppose at the time—to bifurcate the trial into two phases. In the first phase, the government would seek to prove the substantive § 841 drug offense. If Fields were found guilty, the trial would move to a second phase, where the government would seek to prove that Fields had previously been convicted of two serious drug felonies. The court granted the unopposed motion.

1. The Trial

The final pretrial conference took place on January 14, 2020, the day before trial.

44 F.4th 496

It largely focused on what prior-conviction facts, if any, should go to the jury if the second phase was reached. The district court and government took the position that the Sixth Amendment required the incarceration-related facts (length of incarceration and recency of release) to be decided by the jury. But counsel for Fields argued that "none of it is a jury question," raising the same argument noted above: that under Supreme Court precedent, the additional incarceration-related facts had to be found by a jury, but that § 851 required the court to find them. R. 111 PID 794. Thus, counsel argued, if Fields were convicted, he should "[j]ust be subject to the penalty without any enhancement for prior convictions." Id. PID 797.

Trial began the next day. The government put on all its guilt-phase proofs on day one. At the end of the first day, the parties conferred with the court to discuss the § 851 issue further. The court said that if a second phase was necessary, it would likely ask the jury to find whether Fields was convicted of each prior offense and determine, for each, whether he served over a year in prison and was released within fifteen years of his current offense. Counsel for Fields repeated his objection,...

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