Supreme Court rules on extent of criminal fines

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website] ruled 6-3 [opinion, PDF] Thursday that any fact other than a prior conviction which leads to a sentence greater than the statutory maximum must be submitted to the jury. In Southern Union Co. v. United States [SCOTUSblog backgrounder], the defendant was convicted under a criminal statute which imposed per diem fines for violations. The jury was not asked to determine the number of days that Southern Union Co. engaged in the violation and returned a general verdict of guilty. The judge, in turn, imposed a fine on Southern Union Co. based on the alleged 762 days that the violation was taking place. Southern Union Co. maintained that the conviction was a violation of their rights under the Due Process Clause and the Sixth Amendment [texts] right to a jury trial. They argued that the Supreme Court's decision in Aprendi v. New Jersey [opinion] required any fact that increases the fine beyond the maximum be submitted to the jury and proven beyond a reasonable doubt. The United States maintained that Aprendi does not apply to fines and is intended to be used for prison or death sentences. Writing for the majority, Justice Sonia Sotomayor concluded that the government must prove each day of the violation as if they were separate offenses:

The fact that will ultimately determine the maximum fine Southern Union faces is the numbe of days the company violated the statute. Such a finding is not fairly characterized as merely "quantifying the harm" Southern Union caused. Rather, it is a determination that for each given day, the Government has proved that Southern Union committed all of the acts constituting the offense.
Justice Stephen Breyer filed a dissenting opinion, joined by Justices Anthony Kennedy and Samuel Alito, finding that Aprendi does not extend to the imposition of fines.

The decision of the court overturns a ruling [text] by the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit finding that Aprendi does not apply to sentences of fines. The court heard oral arguments [transcript] for the case in March. The court granted certiorari [JURIST report] to hear the case in November 2011.

 

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