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The government’s failure to docket a defendant’s prior felony conviction does not deprive a court of jurisdiction to impose an enhanced sentence, the 2d U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled in a case of first impression in the circuit. Sapia v. United States, No. 03-2087. The issue arose under 21 U.S.C. 851(a)(1), which requires the government to file information before trial or prior to a guilty plea where it is seeking an enhanced sentence based on a previous felony drug conviction. Joseph Sapia had pleaded guilty in Sept. 20, 2000, to one count of conspiracy to distribute and to possess with the intent to distribute five kilograms or more of mixtures and substances containing cocaine. Sapia stipulated in his plea agreement to a sentencing range of 240 to 293 months in prison, which reflected the Federal Sentencing Guidelines range of 235 to 293 months combined with a 240-month enhanced statutory minimum because of a prior felony conviction. Judge Allen G. Schwartz of New York’s southern district imposed a sentence of 270 months in prison followed by 10 years of supervised release. Sapia moved to vacate the sentence, arguing that the government had failed to docket his prior conviction before his guilty plea. Sapia claimed that Section 851′s requirements are jurisdictional or, in the alternative, that the statute demands strict compliance. The government admitted that the prior felony information was stamped “filed” the day after the guilty plea, but it claimed that it had handed Schwartz a copy of the information at the plea proceeding. Schwartz denied Sapia’s motion. Writing on behalf of the 2d Circuit panel, Judge Chester Straub said, “The significance of the issue is that ‘jurisdictional’ defects cannot be waived and are not subject to procedural default. “It is true, as the defendant points out, that a number of courts have referred to � 851 as involving the ‘jurisdiction’ to impose an enhanced sentence,” he said. “But a majority of courts of appeal have now adopted the view that � 851 does not implicate a court’s subject matter jurisdiction; it simply constitutes a condition precedent to a court’s authority to impose a statutorily enhanced sentence.” The “essential point,” Straub said, is that “jurisdiction,” in the words of the U.S. Supreme Court, refers to a “court’s statutory or constitutional power to adjudicate the case,” and Section 851 “has nothing to do with [a court's] subject-matter jurisdiction . . . .Indeed, in this case, the District Court not only had subject matter jurisdiction to accept the plea and impose a sentence; it had the statutory authority to impose the 270-month sentence, even without the filing of a prior felony information,” he wrote. Since the court had jurisdiction, Sapia’s claim was subject to procedural default. Since he hadn’t filed his appeal in a timely fashion, he had forfeited his claim involving the Section 851 defect unless he could somehow show cause for failing to raise the issue-or show he was actually innocent. Straub said that there was no error here that actually affected Sapia’s sentence or prejudiced him in any way. Sapia’s failure to appeal directly “constitutes a procedural default that is fatal to his motion.” In addition, he went on, “although we do not necessarily agree with the District Court’s reasoning that actual notice to Sapia could cure any � 851 defect, we have no occasion to decide whether � 851 requires strict compliance.”

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