United States v. Alexis Hernandez (11th Cir. October 2018)

The Federal Docket

November 7, 2018

Hearings/21 U.S.C. § 851 – The Federal Rules of Evidence do not apply when a district court holds a § 851 hearing to determine whether a defendant has a prior conviction.

Standard of Proof/21 U.S.C. § 851 – District court did not plainly err in applying the preponderance of the evidence standard under § 851 because there was sufficient evidence to prove defendant’s prior conviction beyond a reasonable doubt.

Alexis Hernandez was convicted of controlled substance offenses and sentenced to 240 months of imprisonment, which was the mandatory minimum under § 841(b) given Hernandez’s prior drug conviction.

Prior to her conviction, the district court held the requisite hearing under 21 U.S.C. § 851 to determine whether Hernandez had a prior conviction. The court determined that Hernandez was indeed eligible for the sentence enhancement.

At the hearing, however, the district court admitted evidence that was not authenticated under Rule 902, including non-certified copies of the judgment from Hernandez’s prior case. The court also applied the preponderance of the evidence standard despite § 851’s clear mandate that the government must prove prior convictions beyond a reasonable doubt.

On appeal, the Eleventh Circuit rejected Hernandez’s arguments that 1) district courts are required to apply the rules of evidence in § 851 hearings, and 2) the district court plainly erred in applying the wrong evidentiary standard.

The Court held, for the first time, that the Federal Rules of Evidence are not required in § 851 hearings. Citing the Eight Circuit’s 2009 opinion in United States v. Pratt, 553 F.3d 1165, the Court characterized § 851 hearings as “like sentencing hearings.” Therefore, like in sentencing hearings, any evidence can be admitted in a § 851 hearing as long as: 1) the evidence has “sufficient indicia of reliability, 2) the court makes explicit findings of fact as to credibility, and 3) the defendant has a chance to rebut the evidence.

Of course, unlike sentencing hearings, which are governed by the preponderance of the evidence standard, § 851 explicitly requires that the government prove a prior conviction “beyond a reasonable doubt.” The district court failed to do that during Hernandez’s § 851 hearing.

Nonetheless, the Eleventh Circuit affirmed her conviction. Under plain error analysis, the Court reasoned that her rights were not substantially affected since there was sufficient evidence to prove her prior conviction beyond a reasonable doubt anyway.

Appeal from the Middle District of Florida

Opinion by Wilson, joined by Anderson and W. Pryor

Click here to read the opinion.

Tom Church - Tom is a trial and appellate lawyer focusing on criminal defense and civil trials. Tom is the author of "The Federal Docket" and is a contributor to Mercer Law Review's Annual Survey in the areas of federal sentencing guidelines and criminal law. Tom graduated with honors from the University of Georgia Law School where he served as a research assistant to the faculty in the areas of constitutional law and civil rights litigation. Read Tom's reviews on AVVO. Follow Tom on Linkedin.

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