Tuesday, November 20, 2018
It is well established that the Federal Rules of Evidence apply at the guilt/innocence phase of trial but do not apply at the sentencing stage of trial. But do the Federal Rules of Evidence apply at hearings to establish prior convictions? That was the question answered by the Eleventh Circuit in its recent opinion in United States v. Hernandez, 906 F.3d 1367 (11th Cir. 2018).
Pursuant to 21 U.S.C. § 841(b),
Defendants convicted of certain drug-related felonies are subjected to a 240-month mandatory minimum if they have previously been convicted of a drug-related felony....If the existence of the prior conviction is in dispute, district courts are required to conduct a “§ 851 hearing” to determine whether the defendant has a previous conviction, thus making him eligible for the sentence enhancement.
In Hernandez, Alexis Hernandez "repeatedly objected to the introduction of evidence" at his § 851 hearing, claiming that it violated various rules of evidence. These objections were overruled, and the Eleventh Circuit later concluded that this was the correct outcome. Specifically, the Eleventh Circuit
conclude[d] that the Federal Rules of Evidence do not apply at § 851 hearing because they are miscellaneous proceedings akin to sentencing hearings. First, the Federal Rules of Evidence do not apply at sentencing, and prior convictions are treated as sentencing factors. See FED. R. EVID. 1101(d)(3)....Second, § 851 hearings are similar to sentencing hearings insofar as they involve determining the existence of facts that, if proven, enhance an individual’s sentence independent of the crime of conviction. Finally, § 851 hearings, like sentencing hearings, are post-trial bench proceedings in which the judge is the finder of fact. Accordingly, whether to apply the Federal Rules of Evidence during a § 851 hearing is left to the discretion of the district court. The district court’s decision to disregard the Federal Rules of Evidence during the § 851 hearing was, therefore, not an abuse of discretion.