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Trial Court May Enhance Federal Sentence Even Where Enhancement Omitted From Indictment


United States v. Cotton

Indictment errors: failure to include within the indictment a fact that enhances the statutory maximum sentence does not in itself justify an appellate court vacating the enhanced sentence.

United States v. Cotton 122 S.Ct.1781

Decided: May 20 2002 Supreme Court of the United States

Issue: Whether the omission from a federal indictment of a fact that serves to enhance the statutory maximum sentence justifies an appellate court vacating the enhanced sentence – even where the defendant did not object to the omission at the trial court.

Holding: On the facts, the omission did not seriously affect “fairness, integrity or public reputation of judicial proceedings”. Whilst the indictment was defective, this does not in itself deprive a court of jurisdiction and even though the omission was erroneous, it did not amount to a ‘plain error’ requiring the setting aside of the enhanced sentence.

Facts: One of the respondents was the leader of a ‘vast drug organization’ in Baltimore and a further six respondents had lesser roles within that organization. The original indictment from October 1997 charged the respondents with conspiring to distribute and possess with intent to distribute, 5 kilograms or more of cocaine and 50 grams or more of cocaine base, which, in accordance with 21 U.S.C. ss846 and 841 would give rise to a term of imprisonment of “not… more than life”. In March 1998 a superseding indictment was returned  – adding five more defendants, but this time the charges were for a “detectable amount” of cocaine; for which a statutory maximum of “not more than twenty years” would apply.

At trial, the defendants were found guilty under the superseding indictment – after the District Court had instructed the jury that “as long as you find that a defendant conspired to distribute or possess with intent to distribute these controlled substances, the amounts involved are not important”. At sentencing, the District Court then made a finding of a drug quantity which would give rise to the enhanced sentence – i.e. up to a maximum of life imprisonment. Crucially, the defendants had not objected in the District Court to the fact that the sentences were based on a quantity of drugs not alleged in the indictment.

Meanwhile, as the respondents were awaiting their appeal, the Supreme Court ruled in the matter of Apprendi v. New Jersey 530 US 466 that other than the existence of a prior conviction, any fact that increases the penalty for a crime beyond the prescribed statutory minimum must be proven in front of a jury, beyond reasonable doubt. The respondents then argued that because the drug quantity issue was neither alleged in the indictment nor submitted to the jury, the sentences were invalid.

The Supreme Court reversed a Court of Appeals decision and ruled that the original sentence should stand. The evidence implicating the respondents in the conspiracy showed an involvement with far more than 50 grams of cocaine base; (for example the arrests made in connection with the investigation had included the seizure of numerous bags containing a total of 380 grams of cocaine base). The Supreme Court ruled that a defective indictment does not deprive a court of jurisdiction and neither does the omission from a federal indictment of a fact that enhances the statutory minimum sentence justify a court of appeals vacating that sentence.

Legal analysis: The respondents had referred to the case of Ex parte Bain 121 US 1, (1887) to assert that the omission from the indictment was a jurisdictional defect requiring that the sentence be vacated. The Court noted that during the era in which that case was decided, there was no direct right of review of a criminal conviction to the Supreme Court unless the error was “jurisdictional”. What we mean by ‘jurisdictional’ has gradually change so now it refers to a court’s ‘statutory or constitutional power to adjudicate a case’ whereas previously it was interpreted very widely to the extent that small, technical defects would deprive a court of it’s jurisdiction – in effect to counteract the fact that a jurisdictional challenge was one of the few routes to an appeal.  The Supreme Court ruled that Baines was overturned in so far as it meant that a defective indictment deprives a court of jurisdiction.

The fact that an error had occurred when the second indictment was issued was admitted by the Government. However even if it was accepted that this error affected the respondents’ substantive rights, the respondents could have applied for this to have been rectified at District Court level. Most importantly though, the weight of evidence pointing to the involvement of the respondents with very large quantities of cocaine would render it inconceivable that a jury, once a guilty verdict on the conspiracy charges had been reached, would have failed to have reached the conclusion that the requirements for an “enhanced” sentence were not met.