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Law School Case Brief

Almendarez-Torres v. United States - 523 U.S. 224, 118 S. Ct. 1219 (1998)


An indictment must set forth each element of the crime that it charges. But it need not set forth factors relevant only to the sentencing of an offender found guilty of the charged crime. Within limits, the question of which factors are which is normally a matter for Congress.


Title 8 U.S.C. § 1326(a) makes it a crime for a deported alien to return to the United States without special permission and authorizes a maximum prison term of two years. In 1988, Congress added subsection (b)(2), which authorizes a maximum prison term of 20 years for "any alien described" in subsection (a), if the initial "deportation was subsequent to a conviction for commission of an aggravated felony." Petitioner Hugo Almendarez--Torres pleaded guilty to violating § 1326, admitting that he had been deported, that he had unlawfully returned, and that the earlier deportation had taken place pursuant to three convictions for aggravated felonies. Almendarez-Torres argued at the sentencing hearing that his indictment had not mentioned his earlier aggravated felony convictions. And he argued that, consequently, the court could not sentence him to more than two years' imprisonment, the maximum authorized for an offender without an earlier conviction. The District Court rejected his argument and sentenced him under the applicable Sentencing Guideline range to 85 months' imprisonment. The Fifth Circuit also rejected his argument, holding that subsection (b)(2) is a penalty provision that simply permits the imposition of a higher sentence when the unlawfully returning alien also has a record of prior convictions. Petitioner was granted certiorari review.


Did the trial court err in sentencing the petitioner to more than two years of imprisonment notwithstanding that the charging indictment failed to mention petitioner's earlier convictions?




The United States Supreme Court affirmed the sentence imposed on Almendarez-Torres and held that the statute was a penalty provision, which authorized the court to increase the sentence for a habitual offender. Moreover, the Court explained that the statute did not define a separate crime so there was no requirement for the prior convictions to be stated in the indictment. The lower courts have almost uniformly interpreted statutes that authorize higher sentences for recidivists as setting forth sentencing factors, not as creating separate crimes. In addition, the words "subject to subsection (b)" at the beginning of subsection (a) and "notwithstanding subsection (a)" at the beginning of subsection (b) have a meaning that is neither obscure nor pointless if subsection (b) is interpreted to provide additional penalties, but not if it is intended to set forth substantive crimes. Finally, the Court held that there was no sufficient support for Almendarez-Torres’ claim that the Constitution required Congress to treat recidivism as an element of the offense irrespective of Congress' contrary intent. The Court affirmed the appealed decision.

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