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Harris v. United States

June 24, 2002

WILLIAM JOSEPH HARRIS, PETITIONER
v.
UNITED STATES



On Writ Of Certiorari To The United States Court Of Appeals For The Fourth Circuit Court Below 243 F. 3d 806

SYLLABUS BY THE COURT

OCTOBER TERM, 2001

Argued March 25, 2002

Decided June 24, 2002

Petitioner, who sold illegal narcotics at his pawnshop with an unconcealed semiautomatic pistol at his side, was arrested for violating, inter alia, 18 U. S. C. §924(c)(1)(A), which provides in relevant part that a person who in relation to a drug trafficking crime uses or carries a firearm "shall, in addition to the punishment for such crime" "(i) be sentenced to a term of imprisonment of not less than 5 years; (ii) if the firearm is brandished, be sentenced to ... not less than 7 years; and (iii) if the firearm is discharged, be sentenced to ... not less than 10 years." Because the Government proceeded on the assumption that the provision defines a single crime and that brandishing is a sentencing factor to be found by the judge following trial, the indictment said nothing about brandishing or subsection (ii), simply alleging the elements from the principal paragraph. Petitioner was convicted. When his presentence report recommended that he receive the 7-year minimum sentence, he objected, arguing that brandishing was an element of a separate statutory offense for which he was not indicted or convicted. At the sentencing hearing, the District Court overruled his objection, found that he had brandished the gun, and sentenced him to seven years in prison. Affirming, the Fourth Circuit rejected petitioner's statutory argument and found that McMillan v. Pennsylvania, 477 U. S. 79, foreclosed his argument that if brandishing is a sentencing factor, the statute is unconstitutional under Apprendi v. New Jersey, 536 U. S. ____ (2002)

Justice Kennedy announced the judgment of the Court and delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I, II, and IV, and an opinion with respect to Part III, in which The Chief Justice, Justice O'Connor, and Justice Scalia join.

Once more we consider the distinction the law has drawn between the elements of a crime and factors that influence a criminal sentence. Legislatures define crimes in terms of the facts that are their essential elements, and constitutional guarantees attach to these facts. In federal prosecutions, "[n]o person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury" alleging all the elements of the crime. U. S. Const., Amdt. 5; see Hamling v. United States, 418 U. S. 87, 117 (1974). "In all criminal prosecutions," state and federal, "the accused shall enjoy the right to ... trial ... by an impartial jury," U. S. Const., Amdt. 6; see Duncan v. Louisiana, 391 U. S. 145, 149 (1968), at which the government must prove each element beyond a reasonable doubt, see In re Winship, 397 U. S. 358, 364 (1970).

Yet not all facts affecting the defendant's punishment are elements. After the accused is convicted, the judge may impose a sentence within a range provided by statute, basing it on various facts relating to the defendant and the manner in which the offense was committed. Though these facts may have a substantial impact on the sentence, they are not elements, and are thus not subject to the Constitution's indictment, jury, and proof requirements. Some statutes also direct judges to give specific weight to certain facts when choosing the sentence. The statutes do not require these facts, sometimes referred to as sentencing factors, to be alleged in the indictment, submitted to the jury, or established beyond a reasonable doubt.

The Constitution permits legislatures to make the distinction between elements and sentencing factors, but it imposes some limitations as well. For if it did not, legislatures could evade the indictment, jury, and proof requirements by labeling almost every relevant fact a sentencing factor. The Court described one limitation in this respect two Terms ago in Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U. S. 466, 490 (2000): "Other than the fact of a prior conviction, any fact that increases the penalty for a crime beyond the prescribed statutory maximum," whether the statute calls it an element or a sentencing factor, "must be submitted to a jury, and proved beyond a reasonable doubt." Fourteen years before, in McMillan v. Pennsylvania, 477 U. S. 79 (1986), the Court had declined to adopt a more restrictive constitutional rule. McMillan sustained a statute that increased the minimum penalty for a crime, though not beyond the statutory maximum, when the sentencing judge found, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the defendant had possessed a firearm.

The principal question before us is whether McMillan stands after Apprendi.

I.

Petitioner William Joseph Harris sold illegal narcotics out of his pawnshop with an unconcealed semiautomatic pistol at his side. He was later arrested for violating federal drug and firearms laws, including 18 U. S. C. §924(c)(1)(A). That statute provides in relevant part:

"[A]ny person who, during and in relation to any crime of violence or drug trafficking crime ... uses or carries a firearm, or who, in furtherance of any such crime, possesses a firearm, shall, in addition to the punishment provided for such crime of violence or drug trafficking crime --

"(i) be sentenced to a term of imprisonment of not less than 5 years;

"(ii) if the firearm is brandished, be sentenced to a term of imprisonment of not less than 7 years; and

"(iii) if the firearm is discharged, be sentenced to a term of imprisonment of not less than 10 years."

The Government proceeded on the assumption that §924(c)(1)(A) defines a single crime and that brandishing is a sentencing factor to be considered by the judge after the trial. For this reason the indictment said nothing of brandishing and made no reference to subsection (ii). Instead, it simply alleged the elements from the statute's principal paragraph: that "during and in relation to a drug trafficking crime," petitioner had "knowingly carr[ied] a firearm." At a bench trial the United States District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina found petitioner guilty as charged.

Following his conviction, the presentence report recommended that petitioner be given the 7-year minimum because he had brandished the gun. Petitioner objected, citing this Court's decision in Jones v. United States, 526 U. S. 227 (1999), and arguing that, as a matter of statutory interpretation, brandishing is an element of a separate offense, an offense for which he had not been indicted or tried. At the sentencing hearing the District Court overruled the objection, found by a preponderance of the evidence that petitioner had brandished the gun, and sentenced him to seven years in prison.

In the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit petitioner again pressed his statutory argument. He added that if brandishing is a sentencing factor as a statutory matter, the statute is unconstitutional in light of Apprendi -- even though, as petitioner acknowledged, the judge's finding did not alter the maximum penalty to which he was exposed. Rejecting these arguments, the Court of Appeals affirmed. 243 F. 3d 806 (2001). Like every other Court of Appeals to have addressed the question, it held that the statute makes brandishing a sentencing factor. Id., at 812; accord, United States v. Barton, 257 F. 3d 433, 443 (CA5 2001); United States v. Carlson, 217 F. 3d 986, 989 (CA8 2000); United States v. Pounds, 230 F. 3d 1317, 1319 (CA11 2000). The court also held that the constitutional argument was foreclosed by McMillan. 243 F. 3d, at 809.

We granted certiorari, 534 U. S. 1064 (2001), and now affirm.

II.

We must first answer a threshold question of statutory construction: Did Congress make brandishing an element or a sentencing factor in §924(c)(1)(A)? In the Government's view the text in question defines a single crime, and the facts in subsections (ii) and (iii) are considerations for the sentencing judge. Petitioner, on the other hand, contends that Congress meant the statute to define three different crimes. Subsection (ii), he says, creates a separate offense of which brandishing is an element. If petitioner is correct, he was neither indicted nor tried for that offense, and the 7-year minimum did not apply.

So we begin our analysis by asking what §924(c)(1)(A) means. The statute does not say in so many words whether brandishing is an element or a sentencing factor, but the structure of the prohibition suggests it is the latter. Federal laws usually list all offense elements "in a single sentence" and separate the sentencing factors "into subsections." Castillo v. United States, 530 U. S. 120, 125 (2000). Here, §924(c)(1)(A) begins with a lengthy principal paragraph listing the elements of a complete crime -- "the basic federal offense of using or carrying a gun during and in relation to" a violent crime or drug offense. Id., at 124. Toward the end of the paragraph is "the word `shall,' which often divides offense-defining provisions from those that specify sentences." Jones, 526 U. S., at 233.

And following "shall" are the separate subsections, which explain how defendants are to "be sentenced." Subsection (i) sets a catchall minimum and "certainly adds no further element." Ibid. Subsections (ii) and (iii), in turn, increase the minimum penalty if certain facts are present, and those subsections do not repeat the elements from the principal paragraph.

When a statute has this sort of structure, we can presume that its principal paragraph defines a single crime and its subsections identify sentencing factors. But even if a statute "has a look to it suggesting that the numbered subsections are only sentencing provisions," id., at 232, the text might provide compelling evidence to the contrary. This was illustrated by the Court's decision in Jones, in which the federal carjacking statute, which had a similar structure, was interpreted as setting out the elements of multiple offenses.

The critical textual clues in this case, however, reinforce the single-offense interpretation implied by the statute's structure. Tradition and past congressional practice, for example, were perhaps the most important guideposts in Jones. The fact at issue there -- serious bodily injury -- is an element in numerous federal statutes, including two on which the carjacking statute was modeled; and the Jones Court doubted that Congress would have made this fact a sentencing factor in one isolated instance. Id., at 235-237; see also Castillo, supra, at 126-127; Almendarez-Torres v. United States, 523 U. S. 224, 230 (1998). In contrast, there is no similar federal tradition of treating brandishing and discharging as offense elements. In Castillo v. United States, supra, the Court singled out brandishing as a paradigmatic sentencing factor: "Traditional sentencing factors often involve ... special features of the manner in which a basic crime was carried out (e.g., that the defendant ... brandished a gun)." Id., at 126. Under the Sentencing Guidelines, moreover, brandishing and discharging affect the sentences for numerous federal crimes. See, e.g., United States Sentencing Commission, Guidelines Manual §§2A2.2(b)(2), 2B3.1(b)(2), 2B3.2(b)(3)(A), 2E2.1(b)(1), 2L1.1(b)(4) (Nov. 2001). Indeed, the Guidelines appear to have been the only antecedents for the statute's brandishing provision. The term "brandished" does not appear in any federal offense-defining provision save 18 U. S. C. §924(c)(1)(A), and did not appear there until 1998, when the statute was amended to take its current form. The numbered subsections were added then, describing, as sentencing factors often do, "special features of the manner in which" the statute's "basic crime" could be carried out. Castillo, supra, at 126. It thus seems likely that brandishing and discharging were meant to serve the same function under the statute as they do under the Guidelines.

We might have had reason to question that inference if brandishing or discharging altered the defendant's punishment in a manner not usually associated with sentencing factors. Jones is again instructive. There the Court accorded great significance to the "steeply higher penalties" authorized by the carjacking statute's three subsections, which enhanced the defendant's maximum sentence from 15 years, to 25 years, to life -- enhancements the Court doubted Congress would have made contingent upon judicial factfinding. 526 U. S., at 233; see also Castillo, supra, at 131; Almendarez-Torres, supra, at 235-236. The provisions before us now, however, have an effect on the defendant's sentence that is more consistent with traditional understandings about how sentencing factors operate; the required findings constrain, rather than extend, the sentencing judge's discretion. Section 924(c)(1)(A) does not authorize the judge to impose "steeply higher penalties" -- or higher penalties at all -- once the facts in question are found. Since the subsections alter only the minimum, the judge may impose a sentence well in excess of seven years, whether or not the defendant brandished the firearm. The incremental changes in the minimum -- from 5 years, to 7, to 10 -- are precisely what one would expect to see in provisions meant to identify matters for the sentencing judge's consideration.

Nothing about the text or history of the statute rebuts the presumption drawn from its structure. Against the single-offense interpretation to which these considerations point, however, petitioner invokes the canon of constitutional avoidance. Under that doctrine, when "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, our duty is to adopt the latter." United States ex rel. Attorney General v. Delaware & Hudson Co., 213 U. S. 366, 408 (1909). It is at least an open question, petitioner contends, whether the Fifth and Sixth Amendments require every fact increasing a federal defendant's minimum sentence to be alleged in the indictment, submitted to the jury, and proved beyond a reasonable doubt. To avoid resolving that question (and possibly invalidating the statute), petitioner urges, we should read §924(c)(1)(A) as making brandishing an element of an aggravated federal crime.

The avoidance canon played a role in Jones, for the subsections of the carjacking statute enhanced the maximum sentence, and a single-offense interpretation would have implicated constitutional questions later addressed -- and resolved in the defendant's favor -- by Apprendi. See Jones, 526 U. S., at 243, n. 6 ("[A]ny fact (other than prior conviction) that increases the maximum penalty for a crime must be charged in an indictment, submitted to a jury, and proven beyond a reasonable doubt").

Yet the canon has no role to play here. It applies only when there are serious concerns about the statute's constitutionality, Reno v. Flores, 507 U. S. 292, 314, n. 9 (1993), and petitioner's proposed rule -- that the Constitution requires any fact increasing the statutory minimum sentence to be accorded the safeguards assigned to elements -- was rejected 16 years ago in McMillan. Petitioner acknowledges as much but argues that recent developments cast doubt on McMillan's viability. To avoid deciding whether McMillan must be overruled, he says, we should construe the problem out of the statute.

Petitioner's suggestion that we use the canon to avoid overruling one of our own precedents is novel and, given that McMillan was in place when §924(c)(1)(A) was enacted, unsound. The avoidance canon rests upon our "respect for Congress, which we assume legislates in the light of constitutional limitations." Rust v. Sullivan, 500 U. S. 173, 191 (1991).

The statute at issue in this case was passed when McMillan provided the controlling instruction, and Congress would have had no reason to believe that it was approaching the constitutional line by following that instruction. We would not further the canon's goal of eliminating friction with our coordinate branch, moreover, if we alleviated our doubt about a constitutional premise we had supplied by adopting a strained reading of a statute that Congress had enacted in reliance on the premise. And if we stretched the text to avoid the question of McMillan's continuing vitality, the canon would embrace a dynamic view of statutory interpretation, under which the text might mean one thing when enacted yet another if the prevailing view of the Constitution later changed. We decline to adopt that approach.

As the avoidance canon poses no obstacle and the interpretive circumstances point in a common direction, we conclude that, as a matter of statutory interpretation, ยง924(c)(1)(A) defines a single offense. The statute regards brandishing and discharging as sentencing factors ...


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