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Prior felony convictions which enhance a sentence are not elements of an offense that need to be submitted to a jury

The defendant in U.S. v. Harris was convicted of three counts of a Hobbs act robbery and four counts relating to possession and use of firearms during those robberies. Under federal sentencing laws, his prior convictions for violent crimes resulted in a life sentence of imprisonment and a consecutive sentence of 57 years. In this appeal Harris challenges the imposition of a mandatory life sentence without a finding by a jury as to the fact of his prior convictions. He argued that this is inconsistent with Alleyne v. U. S. He also challenged the constitutionality of 18 USC § 3559(c) which provides for a mandatory life sentence for persons convicted of certain felonies. He argued that the statute impermissibly removes the sentencing discretion from the courts and delegates it to the executive branch.

Following a 3-day trial the defendant was convicted of three Hobbs act robberies and for using a firearm during those robberies. Because he had prior felony convictions for robbery with a firearm and a battery and law enforcement officer, the defendant qualified for the career offender enhancement under sentencing guidelines § 4B1.1. Also, under 18 USC 3559(c), a defendant convicted of a serious violent felony and previously been convicted of a combination of two or more serious violent felonies or serious drug offenses is subject to a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment. Because the defendant met those criteria, the district court imposed of the statute early mandated life sentence and also impose a consecutive 57 year sentence.

On appeal the defendant argued that his mandatory life sentence is inconsistent with the U.S. constitution as interpreted by the Supreme Court in Alleyne. He argued that the Supreme Court stated in Alleyne that any fact that increases the penalty for that crime is an element that must be submitted to the jury and found beyond a reasonable doubt. The court rejected this argument based on the Apprendi decision, which held that “other than the fact of a prior conviction, any fact that increases the penalty for crime beyond the prescribed statutory maximum must be submitted to a jury in proved beyond a reasonable doubt.” The Supreme Court in Alleyne did not address the specific question at issue here: whether a sentence can be increased because of prior convictions without a jury finding the fact of those convictions. That issue is still governed by Almendarez-Torres v. U. S. which states that the fact of a prior conviction is not an element that must be found by a jury. Applying the Apprendi and Amendarez-Torres decisions, the 11th Circuit held that the district court did not commit error by imposing a mandatory life sentence without any jury findings about the existence of the defendant’s prior convictions.

The other contention raised by the defendant was that the mandatory life sentence under these two statutes violates the delegation of powers doctrine and separation of powers principles of the U.S. constitution. He argued that the mandatory life sentence is applied only if the government chooses to file a notice a prior convictions under § 851. But the court rejected the argument finding that there is no separation of power violation because the power of a prosecutor under the statute is no greater than the classic power of the executive to choose between charges caring different mandatory penalties and other circuits have agreed that section § 3559(c) does not the constitutional separation of powers.