Analysis: Sentencing Ruling May Confuse

Analysis: Sentencing Ruling May Confuse
Posted by CN Staff on January 12, 2005 at 09:55:55 PT
By Michael Kirkland
Source: United Press International
Washington, DC -- A divided Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that any fact that lengthens a sentence in federal court must be proved before a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. The Justice Department had warned earlier that such a ruling would put tens of thousands of federal criminal sentences in limbo. The ruling also says the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines cannot be made mandatory.
But Wednesday's ruling is highly fractured, with one majority deciding the constitutional question and a separate majority ruling that the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines should at least be taken into account in federal sentencing -- making the guidelines strictly advisory.The decision appears to be a compromise between those who want to enforce the Sixth Amendment trial-by-jury guarantee and those who might agree but also want to keep sentences from unraveling.In any case, it will take the lower courts some time to untangle exactly what guidance is contained in the new ruling. It might even take further Supreme Court rulings to work out how Wednesday's ruling applies in actual practice.Each of the two main elements of the ruling was supported by a separate five-justice majority in each of the two opinions. Only one of the nine justices signed on to both opinions. However, eight of the justices dissented in part from one opinion or the other.Wednesday's ruling extends to federal courts the restrictions placed on state courts last June in Blakely vs. Washington.In an opinion joined by four other court members, Justice John Paul Stevens said, "Any fact (other than a prior conviction) which is necessary to support a sentence exceeding the maximum authorized by the facts established by a plea of guilty or a jury verdict must be admitted by the defendant or proved to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt."Stevens was joined by Justices Antonin Scalia, David Souter, Clarence Thomas and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.In a separate opinion joined by four members of the court, Justice Stephen Breyer addressed the "remedies" that the constitutional holding in Stevens' opinion requires.Breyer said Wednesday's holding must be applied to all cases on direct review by an appeals court. But he tried to lessen the impact and ease fears that tens of thousands of sentences would be undone."That fact does not mean that we believe that every sentence gives rise to a Sixth Amendment violation," Breyer said. "Nor do we believe that every appeal will lead to a new sentencing hearing. That is because we expect reviewing courts to apply ordinary prudential doctrines, determining for example, whether the issue was raised below (at the trial court) and whether it fails the 'plain-error' test. It is also because, in cases not involving a Sixth Amendment violation, whether resentencing is warranted or whether it will instead be sufficient to review a sentence for reasonableness may depend upon the application of the harmless-error doctrine."In other words: no harm, no foul.Breyer was joined by Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Anthony Kennedy and Ginsburg.There are approximately 1,200 federal criminal sentences handed down each week.Going back to the case decided last term in Blakely vs. Washington a man had pleaded guilty to kidnapping his wife. Under the Washington state statute he could be sentenced up to 53 months in prison.A state judge, using guidelines contained in another state law, ruled on his own that the kidnapping had been done with "deliberate cruelty" and extended the man's sentence to 90 months.However, last June's ruling in the Supreme Court struck down the Washington state scheme, and any similar state scheme, that allowed judges to extend sentences on their own.Any fact that lengthened a state sentence, the majority ruled, unless a defendant pleads guilty separately to it, must be submitted separately to a jury and proved beyond a reasonable doubt.The question before the Supreme Court in Wednesday's ruling was whether that same principle applies in federal court.Federal judges have been using the mandatory U.S. sentencing guidelines to lengthen or shorten a convicted defendant's punishment within the broad limits set by federal statute. In doing so, a judge lengthened a sentence, without jury approval, based on additional facts that the judge believed were proved by "a preponderance of the evidence."Congress established the U.S. Sentencing Commission, a "quasi-judicial" body, to promulgate the guidelines and bring "uniformity, proportionality and certainty" to federal sentencing that sometimes varied widely for the same offense.The combined case that brought Wednesday's ruling involved a man convicted of drug offenses in Wisconsin and another convicted of drug offenses in Maine.The Wisconsin man, Freddie Booker, was convicted of possession of at least 50 grams of cocaine with intent to distribute.The judge could have imposed a sentence of 23 years and 10 months based on the facts found by the jury. Instead the judge conducted a post-trial proceeding and concluded by a preponderance of the evidence that Booker had possessed an additional 566 grams of crack. Booker received a 30-year sentence.An appeals court overturned the sentence, saying it violated Supreme Court precedent. The government asked the Supreme Court for review.The Maine defendant, Duncan Fanfan, was charged with conspiracy to distribute and possess at least 500 grams of cocaine. His judge, relying on Blakely, recognized that Fanfan was the supervisor of a criminal activity but sentenced him to a term "based solely upon the guilty verdict."In the Fanfan case the government asked the Supreme Court for expedited review.The lower-court judgment in Booker was affirmed, but the case was sent down for a new hearing based on Wednesday's ruling. The trial judge's sentence in the Fanfan case was "vacated," or thrown out, and the case sent back down for a new hearing based on the ruling.(No. 04-104, United States vs. Booker; and No. 04-105, United States vs. Fanfan)Source: United Press International (Wire)Author: Michael Kirkland, UPI Legal Affairs CorrespondentPublished: January 12, 2005Copyright 2005 United Press InternationalWebsite: Contact: nationaldesk upi.comRelated Articles & Web Site:FAMM Sentencing Rules Are Wrongly Applied Madness Assails Sentencing Laws
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