Thursday, December 29th, 2005

Prior Felony Information Requirement of 21 U.S.C. § 851 Not Jurisdictional

Sapia v. United States, Docket No. 03-2087 (2d Cir. Dec. 28, 2005) (Winter, Straub, Lay (by desig’n)): Section 851 of Title 21 provides that the enhanced penalties set forth in § 841(b) for defendants who commit a drug offense after sustaining prior drug convictions are triggered only if the Government files, before trial or the entry of a guilty plea, an information “stating in writing the previous convictions to be relied upon.” In this decision, the Court holds that the prior felony information requirement is not jurisdictional, and thus that an argument, raised in a collateral attack, that the sentencing court erred in imposing an enhanced sentence in the absence of a § 851 information is subject to procedural default analysis. And because Sapia could not satisfy the cause-and-prejudice inquiry, the Court dismisses his § 2255 petition.

The essential facts are simple. Sapia was indicted for conspiring to distribute 5 or more kilograms of cocaine under § 846 & 841(b)(1)(A). He had a prior drug conviction and thus faced a mandatory minimum of 20 years (rather than 10 years) under § 841(b)(1)(A). He entered into a plea agreement with the Government, acknowledging that the applicable Guidelines range was 240 to 293 months’ imprisonment. The range would’ve been 235 to 293 but for the 20-year minimum.

Sapia was thus fully aware that he faced a 20-year minimum. However, the Government somehow failed to file a § 851 information until the day after Sapia pleaded guilty.

The judge eventually sentenced Sapia to 270 months’ imprisonment, well above the 20-year minimum. There was no appeal.

A year later, Sapia filed a § 2255 petition claiming that his sentence was erroneously imposed because the Government failed to comply with § 851’s requirement. Because this claim was not raised on direct appeal, it was procedurally defaulted. Therefore, the claim could only be addressed on the merits in the § 2255 petition if (1) Sapia could show cause & prejudice for his failure to raise the claim on the direct appeal, or (2) the claim went to the district court’s “jurisdiction,” since jurisdictional errors cannot be procedural defaulted or otherwise waived or forfeited.

The Circuit ruled that § 851’s requirement was not jurisdictional, and that Sapia could not show cause & prejudice. First and foremost, the Court adopted the “prevailing view” that “§ 851 does not implicate a court’s subject-matter jurisdiction; it simply constitutes a condition precedent to a court’s authority to impose a statutorily authorized sentence.” Op. at 7-8. “The essential point,” the Court explained, is that “‘jurisdiction’ . . . refers to a court’s statutory or constitutional power to adjudicate the case, and § 851 simply has nothing to do with a court’s subject-matter jurisdiction over a criminal case or a court’s general power to impose a sentence.” Op. at 8. “Whether or not the prosecution files a timely section 851(a) information, a federal district court plainly possesses subject-matter jurisdiction over drug cases. Once subject-matter jurisdiction has attached, courts may exceed their authority or otherwise err without loss of jurisdiction.” Id. Sapia’s failure to raise the § 851 error on direct appeal is thus subject to procedural default analysis.

Second, Sapia could not satisfy the cause and prejudice inquiry by claiming that counsel was ineffective for failing to file a direct appeal raising the § 851 claim. The Court went straight to the prejudice prong of the Strickland inquiry and concluded that, even if counsel’s failure to file an appeal on this issue fell below objective norms, Sapia could not show prejudice given the sentence imposed. As noted, the district court imposed a 270-month sentence even though the erroneous minimum was only 240 months. And nothing in the record shows that the court would have imposed a different sentence had it known that the enhanced minimum was not triggered, and thus that Sapia faced a Guidelines range of 235 to 293 rather than 240 to 293.

Thus, there was no “reasonable probability” that the error in failing to file a § 851 information prior to Sapia’s plea affected the outcome. And since Sapia had no other way to circumvent the procedural default problem, the Court dismissed the petition.

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