United States v. Watts - 519 U.S. 148 (1997)


OCTOBER TERM, 1996

Syllabus

UNITED STATES v. WATTS

ON PETITION FOR WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE NINTH CIRCUIT

No. 95-1906. Decided January 6, 1997*

Respondent Watts was convicted of possessing cocaine base with intent to distribute, but acquitted of using a firearm in relation to a drug offense. Despite this, the District Court found by a preponderance of the evidence that Watts possessed guns in connection with the drug offense, and therefore added two points to his base offense level when calculating his sentence under the United States Sentencing Guidelines. In a separate case, respondent Putra was convicted of aiding and abetting possession with intent to distribute cocaine on May 8, 1992, but acquitted of aiding and abetting such a transaction on May 9. Finding by a preponderance of the evidence that she had been involved in the May 9 transaction, the District Court calculated her Guidelines' base offense level by aggregating the amounts of both sales. In each of these cases, the Ninth Circuit held that the sentencing courts could not consider respondents' conduct underlying the charges of which they had been acquitted.

Held: A jury's verdict of acquittal does not prevent a sentencing court from considering conduct underlying the acquitted charge, so long as that conduct has been proved by a preponderance of the evidence. The Ninth Circuit's contrary holdings conflict with the clear implications of 18 U. S. C. § 3661, the Guidelines, and this Court's double jeopardy decisions, particularly Witte v. United States, 515 U. S. 389. Section 3661 codifies the longstanding principle that sentencing courts have broad discretion to consider various kinds of information, including facts related to charges of which the defendant has been acquitted. Further, this Court has held that consideration of information about a defendant's character and conduct at sentencing does not result in punishment for any offense other than the crime of conviction. Id., at 401. In addition, acquittal merely proves, not that the defendant is innocent, but the existence of a reasonable doubt as to his guilt. Thus, an acquittal does not preclude the Government from relitigating an issue in a subsequent action governed by a lower standard of proof. Dowling v. United States, 493 U. S. 342, 349. The acquittals below shed no light on

*Together with United States v. Putra, also on petition for writ of certiorari to the same court.


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whether a preponderance of the evidence either established Putra's participation in the May 9 sale or Watts' use of a firearm in connection with a drug offense.

Certiorari granted; 67 F.3d 790 and 78 F.3d 1386, reversed and remanded.

PER CURIAM.

In these two cases, two panels of the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit held that sentencing courts could not consider conduct of the defendants underlying charges of which they had been acquitted. United States v. Watts, 67 F. 3d 790 (CA9 1995) (Watts); United States v. Putra, 78 F. 3d 1386 (CA9 1996) (Putra). Every other Court of Appeals has held that a sentencing court may do so, if the Government establishes that conduct by a preponderance of the evidence.1 The Government filed a single petition for certiorari seeking review of both cases, pursuant to this Court's Rule 12.4, to resolve this split. Because the panels' holdings conflict with the clear implications of 18 U. S. C. § 3661, the Sentencing Guidelines, and this Court's decisions, particularly Witte v. United States, 515 U. S. 389 (1995), we grant the petition and reverse in both cases.

In Watts, police discovered cocaine base in a kitchen cabinet and two loaded guns and ammunition hidden in a bedroom closet of Watts' house. A jury convicted Watts of possessing cocaine base with intent to distribute, in violation of

1 United States v. Boney, 977 F.2d 624, 635-636 (CADC 1992); United States v. Mocciola, 891 F.2d 13, 16-17 (CA1 1989) (criticized in dicta in United States v. Lanoue, 71 F.3d 966, 984 (CA1 1995)); United States v. Rodriguez-Gonzalez, 899 F.2d 177, 180-182 (CA2), cert. denied, 498 U. S. 844 (1990); United States v. Ryan, 866 F.2d 604, 608-609 (CA3 1989); United States v. Isom, 886 F.2d 736, 738-739 (CA4 1989); United States v. Juarez-Ortega, 866 F.2d 747, 748-749 (CA5 1989) (per curiam); United States v. Milton, 27 F.3d 203, 208-209 (CA6 1994), cert. denied, 513 U. S. 1085 (1995); United States v. Fonner, 920 F.2d 1330, 1332-1333 (CA7 1990); United States v. Dawn, 897 F.2d 1444, 1449-1450 (CA8), cert. denied, 498 U. S. 960 (1990); United States v. Coleman, 947 F.2d 1424, 1428-1429 (CAlO 1991), cert. denied, 503 U. S. 972 (1992); United States v. Averi, 922 F. 2d 765, 765-766 (CAll 1991) (per curiam).


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