Roberts v. United States
Decided on April 15, 1980; 445 US 552

Heroin dealer claims harsh sentence unfairly stemmed from noncooperation with police


A. Issues Discussed: Criminal Justice (drugs), Criminal Procedure, Self-Incrimination, Criminal Conspiracy, 1st and 14th Amendments

B. Legal Question Presented:

Was it proper for the District Court to consider, as one factor in imposing  a sentence, petitioner’s refusal to cooperate with the investigators?


A. Background:

Petitioner Winfield Roberts accompanied Cecilia Payne to the office of the US Attorney for the District of Columbia.  Government surveillance had previously revealed that Payne’s car had been used to transport heroin, and Payne told investigators that she occasionally lent her car to Roberts.  At Payne's suggestion, the investigators asked Roberts if he would answer some questions. They gave him his Miranda warnings, and also told him that he was free to leave.

When Roberts agreed to stay, the investigators asked whether he knew "Boo" Thornton, then the principal target of the heroin investigation. Roberts admitted that he had delivered heroin to Thornton on several occasions.  He confessed that he had discussed drug transactions with Thornton in certain intercepted telephone conversations.  When asked to name suppliers, however, Roberts gave evasive answers.  Although the investigators warned him that the extent of his cooperation would bear on the charges brought against him, he provided no further information.

Roberts was indicted on one count of conspiring to distribute heroin and four counts of using a telephone to facilitate the distribution of heroin. Later he entered a plea of guilt to the conspiracy count and was sentenced to 4-15 years imprisonment, 3 years special parole, and a $5,000 fine.

The Court of Appeals vacated the conviction on the ground that the terms of the plea agreement were inadequately disclosed to the District Court.  On remand, Roberts pleaded guilty to two counts of telephone misuse under an agreement that permitted the Government to seek a substantial sentence.  The District Court imposed consecutive sentences of one to four years on each count and a special parole term of three years, but it declined to impose a fine. The court explained that these sentences were appropriate because petitioner was on parole from a bank robbery conviction at the time of the offenses, and because he was a dealer who had refused to cooperate with the Government. Petitioner again appealed, contending for the first time that the sentencing court should not have considered his failure to cooperate. The Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit vacated the special parole term, but otherwise affirmed the judgment.

Roberts appealed to the US Supreme Court and the high court granted certiorari.
B. Counsel of Record:
Opposing Side
Allan M. Palmer argued the cause and filed a brief for petitioner.

Stephen M. Shapiro argued the cause for the United States.  With him on the brief were Solicitor General McCree, Assistant Attorney General Heymann, and Deputy Solicitor General Frey.
C. The Arguments:
Opposing Side
Unavailable Unavailable
Opposing Side
 Bruce J. Ennis, Jr., filed a brief urging reversal for the American Civil Liberties Union, as amici curiae. No amici curiae briefs were filed on behalf of Respondent.

"Petitioner insists that he had a constitutional right to remain silent, and that no adverse inferences can be drawn from the exercise of that right. We find this argument singularly unpersuasive. The Fifth Amendment privilege against compelled self-incrimination is not self-executing. At least where the Government has no substantial reason to believe that the requested disclosures are likely to be incriminating, the privilege may not be relied upon unless it is invoked in a timely fashion...

[P]etitioner 'did not assert his privilege or in any manner suggest that he withheld his testimony because there was any ground for fear of self-incrimination. His assertion of it here is evidently an afterthought...'

The privilege 'must be deemed waived if not in some manner fairly brought to the attention of the tribunal which must pass upon it.'  Thus, if petitioner believed that his failure to cooperate was privileged, he should have said so at a time when the sentencing court could have determined whether his claim was legitimate.

Petitioner would avoid the force of this elementary rule by arguing that Miranda warnings supplied additional protection for his right to remain silent. But the right to silence described in those warnings derives from the Fifth Amendment and adds nothing to it. Although Miranda's requirement of specific warnings creates a limited exception to the rule that the privilege must be claimed, the exception does not apply outside the context of the inherently coercive custodial interrogations for which it was designed. The warnings protect persons who, exposed to such interrogation without the assistance of counsel, otherwise might be unable to make a free and informed choice to remain silent...

Petitioner has identified nothing that might have impaired his 'free choice to admit, to deny, or to refuse to answer.'... We conclude that the District Court committed no constitutional error. If we were to invalidate petitioner's sentence on the record before us, we would sanction an unwarranted interference with a function traditionally vested in the trial courts. Accordingly, the judgment of the Court of Appeals is affirmed."

Held: Judgment of Court of Appeals affirmed.
Justice Vote: 1 Pro vs. 8 Con
  • Powell, L. Con (Wrote majority opinion)
  • Brennan, W. Con (Wrote concurring opinion)
  • White, B. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Blackmun, H. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Burger, W. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Stewart, J. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Rehnquist, W. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Stevens, J. Con (Joined majority opinion)
  • Marshall, T.  Pro (Wrote dissenting opinion)

The ACLU filed as amicus curiae urging reversal; the US Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals’ judgment in an 8-1 vote, giving the ACLU an apparent loss.