Federal Appeals Court urges SCOTUS to address key Sixth Amendment dispute | Eastern North Carolina Now

With a 10-4 vote, the 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a request to rehear the case United States v. Brown before the full slate of appellate judges.

    Publisher's Note: This post appears here courtesy of the Carolina Journal. The author of this post is CJ Staff.

    The 4th US Circuit Court of Appeals will not hold a rehearing in front of all judges on an issue tied to armed career criminals and the Sixth Amendment. In a 10-4 split, appellate judges decided to leave the issue to the US Supreme Court.

    In the case United States v. Rico Brown, the North Carolina defendant pleaded guilty to possession of a firearm by a felon. He faced a 15-year prison sentence. That was the mandatory minimum sentence under terms of the federal Armed Career Criminal Act.

    The mandatory sentence applies when a defendant has "three previous convictions ... for a violent felony or a serious drug offense ... committed on occasions different from one another." In Brown's case, his indictment did not include the facts that would have led to the longer prison term. Instead a trial judge determined during sentencing that Brown met the conditions for the mandatory prison time.

    Brown challenged the sentence. He argued that Supreme Court precedents, along with the Fifth and Sixth Amendments, required that ACCA provisions should have been alleged in an indictment and either found by a jury or admitted in a guilty plea.


    A three-judge 4th Circuit panel upheld Brown's sentence. The panel cited the Supreme Court's 1998 precedent in the case Almendarez-Torres v. United States, along with the circuit's own 2005 precedent in a case called United States v. Thompson.

    Wednesday's decision not to revisit the Brown case in an en banc hearing of the full court prompted four different opinions.

    Seven judges supported an opinion from Judge Toby Heytens.

    "This appeal raises an important and recurring issue that should be considered by the Supreme Court: Whether the Sixth Amendment permits district courts to decide a defendant's prior offenses were 'committed on occasions different from one another' for purposes of the Armed Career Criminal Act," Heytens wrote. "Both parties recognize Rico Brown preserved his argument on this point. And both sides agree this Court's existing precedent - and that of every other court of appeals - is wrong. I nonetheless do not think en banc review is warranted here because I believe this case implicates 'an important question of federal law that has not been, but should be, settled by [the Supreme] Court.'"

    "The problem is the uncertain scope of Almendarez-Torres v. United States, and how to square the broad language in that opinion with other broad language in more recent decisions," Heytens added.

    Heytens noted that the full 8th Circuit agreed in November to take up the same issue. "I do not believe en banc review is warranted here. But I hope the Supreme Court will step in to illuminate the path soon," he wrote.


    Judge Paul Niemeyer wrote the original 4th Circuit opinion upholding Brown's 15-year sentence. Writing for two judges, he agreed with Heytens's statements "urging the Supreme Court to clarify and settle the question of whether the 'different occasions' facts ... should be found by a court or must be found by a jury."

    "I do have a different approach as to the scope of Almendarez-Torres's continuing vitality in light of subsequent Supreme Court cases, ... but this difference is the very basis for our urging the Supreme Court to give the courts of appeals guidance in this important matter," Niemeyer wrote.

    Judge James Wynn wrote for the four dissenting judges who voted for a full en banc hearing of Brown's case.

    "I agree with my colleagues that developments in the Supreme Court over the past two decades cast serious doubt on the continuing viability of Almendarez-Torres," Wynn wrote. "And I also agree that the Supreme Court should take up the key question in this case."

    "But I disagree with my colleagues' conclusion that we must sit on our hands until it does so," Wynn added. "Instead, we should rehear this matter en banc and correct the flaws in our own precedent."

    "[T]oday, this Court chooses to avoid confronting the question of whether individuals may be serving lengthy terms of imprisonment under sentences that were determined in violation of the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution," Wynn wrote. "And, it chooses to do so in the face of agreement by both parties that en banc review is warranted here because the Sixth Amendment requires that a jury find, or a defendant admit, that prior convictions were for offenses occurring on occasions different from one another."


    "[T]oday's choice to duck this issue and wait for potential action by the Supreme Court means the courts and panels in this circuit must continue to apply strikingly questionable precedent, entirely at the expense of rights conferred under the Sixth Amendment," he added.

    Three of the four dissenters supported another opinion from Judge Robert Bruce King. "[O]ur Court has denied an en banc rehearing, apparently viewing this as being a difficult case in which 'the Supreme Court will [soon] step in to illuminate the path' forward," King wrote. "In my view, however, that speculative rationale does not provide a sound basis for denying en banc review. Rather, because this appeal 'involves a question of exceptional importance,' rehearing en banc was warranted."
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