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November 2, 2005

Second Circuit applies all the big Blakely exceptions

Thanks to Howard, I see that the Second Circuit today in US v. Estrada (Herredia), No. 02-1544 (2d Cir. Nov. 2, 2005) (available here), has upheld a mandatory minimum sentence of life imprisonment by relying upon both the mandatory minimum exception (Harris) and the prior conviction exception (Almendarez-Torres) to the Apprendi-Blakely rule about judicial factfinding.  Here is the court's own summary of its holding: "We hold that prior felony drug convictions triggering a mandatory minimum sentence of lifetime imprisonment under § 841(b)(1)(A) need not be charged in the indictment or proved to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt."  And here is the heart of the court's work:

We recognize that sentencing factors typically "channel judicial discretion" within the range authorized by the jury's verdict, increasing the minimum sentence and therefore narrowing the range within which a judge may exercise sentencing discretion. [Harris, 536 U.S.] at 567. In cases such as this one, where the mandatory minimum is equivalent to the statutory maximum, the trial judge is left with no discretion in determining an appropriate sentence once he or she finds that the mandatory minimum applies.  While this circumstance deprives the judge of sentencing discretion, the finding nonetheless restrains the judge's power within the outer limits set by the applicable statutory maximum, and the finding thus does not increase the penalty "beyond the prescribed statutory maximum." Apprendi, 530 U.S. at 490 (emphasis added).  We thus conclude that the increasing mandatory minimum sentences for prior felony drug convictions in this case fit within the Harris paradigm.

Moreover, as we held in United States v. Santiago, 268 F.3d 151 (2d Cir. 2001), the Supreme Court's ruling in Almendarez-Torres v. United States, 523 U.S. 224 (1998), that recidivism is a sentencing factor rather than an element of the crime, remains good law, and it is not within the purview of the Courts of Appeals "to anticipate whether the Supreme Court may one day overrule its existing precedent."...  While we acknowledge a tension between the spirit of Booker that all facts that fix mandatorily a defendant's sentence should be found by a jury or admitted by the defendant and the Supreme Court's decision in Almendarez-Torres, the "prior conviction" exception nonetheless remains the law.

Howard comments, "It will be interesting to see whether the U.S. Supreme Court ever agrees to take up one of these cases."  To this astute comment, which I endorse, I would add that it is interesting to speculate what Chief Justice Roberts or a Justice Alito might think of these doctrines.

November 2, 2005 at 05:18 PM | Permalink


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I am a student at NMSU doing a research paper for a criminal justice class and I am trying to get a better understanding of the Blakely case from a beginners perspective. If possible can you send me some info. or give a suggestion on where to start. Thank you in advance.

Posted by: Kathy Hollar | Nov 6, 2005 8:50:33 PM

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