Thursday, July 26, 2007

851 Information Filed Between Jury Selection & Opening Statements Not Plain Error

US v. Beasley: Beasley was charged with conspiracy to distribute more than 50 grams of crack and possession with intent to distribute more than 5 grams of crack. Jury selection took place on January 6, 2004. However, the jury was not sworn and opening statements didn't take place until three weeks later. In the interim, the Government filed an information pursuant to 21 USC 851, increasing Beasley's potential maximum sentence from 5 to 40 years up to 10 years to life. Beasley was convicted, found to be a career offender, and sentenced to 408 months in prison.

On appeal, for the first time, Beasley argued that the 851 motion was not timely filed. Section 851 requires that the information be filed "before trial, or before entry of a plea of guilty." Beasley argued that the trial began when the jury was selected on January 6, before the information was filed. He also argued that the 851 information is a jurisdictional requirement and therefore the issue was not subject to plain error review.

The Fourth Circuit rejected Beasley's arguments. First, it concluded that the 851 information was not jurisdictional, holding that it merely allows for increased punishment and does not confer on the district court any additional jurisdictional authority beyond 18 USC 3231. Proceeding to plain error review, the court held the term "before trial" is ambiguous and that, without any controlling precedent discussing the issue, any error (if there was one) is certainly not plain. Notably, the court does not go on to resolve the issue of whether there actually was an error in the first place. The court also briefly disposed of two evidentiary issues raised by Beasley.

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