In United States v. Tidwell, No. 02-3139 (3d Cir. Mar. 31, 2008), the Third Circuit held that Congress intended 21 U.S.C. § 848(b) as a sentencing enhancement, not as a separate crime, and thus the life sentence imposed on Tidwell under § 848(b) was constitutional where the factual basis was not charged in the indictment. Tidwell had pleaded guilty to engaging in a criminal enterprise in violation of § 848 ("Continuing criminal enterprise"), which carries a penalty of 20 years to life imprisonment. The indictment, however, did not specifically charge him with violating § 848(b) ("Life imprisonment for engaging in continuing criminal enterprise"), which carries a mandatory life sentence for one who is the leader of the enterprise and either the offense involved 300 times the quantity of drugs described in § 841(b)(1)(B) or the enterprise received more than $10 million in gross receipts over a 12-month period.
The district court sentenced him to life imprisonment under § 848(b), reasoning that § 848(b) sets forth sentencing factors that govern sentences imposed for violating the substantive offense, rather than elements of a separate crime. The Third Circuit agreed. Examining the structure, format, and text of the statute, and four Supreme Court decisions (Almendarez-Torres, Jones, Castillo, and Harris), as well as the legislative history of § 848(b), the Court concluded that Congress intended to define the crime of continuing criminal enterprise in § 848(c), that it set out the applicable penalties for that crime in subsection (a), and that it intended to mandate an enhancement when a defendant commits the offense in the manner set forth in subsection (b). Thus, the Third Circuit affirmed Tidwell’s life sentence as constitutionally imposed, where the factual basis was not charged in the indictment nor proven beyond a reasonable doubt. In addition, the Third Circuit rejected Tidwell’s claim that his plea violated due process, reasoning that he was informed that, absent a government motion seeking a sentencing reduction, his guilty plea subjected him to a mandatory life sentence.