ILNews

US Supreme Court: Criminal fines require jury finding

Back to TopCommentsE-mailPrintBookmark and Share

An end-of-term U.S. Supreme Court decision did far more than reduce a penalty in a federal criminal environmental judgment from $18 million to $50,000. It created a new reality for how the government will have to pursue such prosecutions in the future, experts say.

A rare coalition of conservative and liberal justices ruled 6-3 in Southern Union Co. v. United States, 11–94, that the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial requires a jury to determine facts to support a sentence imposed after a guilty verdict.

A jury found Houston-based utility company Southern Union guilty of improperly storing mercury in violation of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. The Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the jury verdict that proved guilt beyond a reasonable doubt was established for just one day rather than the hundreds of days the government alleged, and the award was reduced to the maximum penalty for a single-day violation.
 

ryan-scott-mug.jpg Scott

Indiana University Maurer School of Law associate professor Ryan Scott watched the case and narrated a podcast for the Federalist Society website that analyzed the Southern Union opinion. He said the justices extended to federal criminal fines the rule of Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466 (2000), that states, “Other than the fact of a prior conviction, any fact that increases the penalty for a crime beyond the prescribed statutory maximum must be submitted to a jury and proved beyond a reasonable doubt.”

“This is definitely a win for the defendants,” Scott told the Indiana Lawyer. “That said, the history of Apprendi is one of the Supreme Court recognizing more and more expansive jury rights and the government responding with great resilience.”

In essence, experts said, juries will have to determine factors such as lengths of violations for sentences involving fines on a “per day/per violation” basis, or losses and potential penalties in federal fraud cases. A simple guilty verdict such as that in Southern Union no longer is sufficient to allow a judge to use his or her discretion in levying criminal fines.

“I think the public assumes that the right to ‘trial by jury’ has already been fully defined by the federal courts. But we continue to discover new aspects to this constitutional guarantee,” said Jeff Lorenzo, a Seymour attorney who writes the Indiana Environmental Law Report blog.

He said the decision was overshadowed by SCOTUS rulings on health care and immigration, but, “this is one those cases that talks about issues that are essential to the disposition of justice.”

Southern Union is important for a couple of reasons. It represents an important win for corporate defendants in criminal cases. Since corporations can’t be imprisoned, they are more likely to be punished by large fines. This is particularly true in the environmental practice area because the potential damages to land, air and water are so significant and cleanup costs so imposing,” Lorenzo explained. 

“Beyond that, prosecutors (and courts) will have to ascertain the appropriate mechanisms to obtain a jury decision on the most important and critical facts relevant to augmented sentences,” he said.

That’s likely to mean that prosecutors will have to seek a special verdict from juries that makes specific findings on each count in which a guilty verdict is rendered, Scott and Lorenzo said. It also might require bifurcated trials involving jury determinations of guilt followed by proceedings to determine sentencing criteria on which a judge will rule.

The decision in Southern Union affects a small number of cases, according to Scott, but they often are high-profile matters where potential fines are great. “The distribution of who makes a determination (of sentencing criteria) is very significant,” he said.

Scott believes potentially protracted jury proceedings required under the ruling also might give defendants more leverage.

“You can bet defendants will use the fact that this is an inconvenience,” he said. But he noted the government has been quick to respond to requirements of Apprendi.


lorenzo-jeff-mug.jpg Lorenzo

“I think what’s most likely to happen is the government will continue to charge in a case just as it’s always done, and this will be a feature of discussion,” he said of the rule of Apprendi. Because most cases settle, “it will become the sort of thing the government negotiates.”

In cases that do proceed to trial, judges might find themselves unable to constitutionally impose a fine greater than that allowed under a jury’s general verdict of guilty, Scott said. They’ll have to determine whether further jury determination is warranted, given the time and cost involved. “They may not feel it’s worth the candle and impose a smaller fine.”

But Southern Union also is likely to sharpen the government’s focus in prosecuting environmental and fraud cases. “I expect indictments will be a little more refined,” Scott said.

Jon Laramore, a partner with Faegre Baker Daniels LLP in Indianapolis, said the ruling was a logical extension of Apprendi.

“Now that we know there are these requirements for fines, prosecutors will be able to take some relatively simple measures to anticipate this issue and in many cases keep it from becoming a problem,” he said.

Lorenzo predicted that the difficulty of proving facts beyond a reasonable doubt relevant to sentencing could pose practical hardships.

“Prosecutors may consider delaying filing until they have the evidence they are going to need to get the fines they consider appropriate,” he wrote. 

Lorenzo said a new body of caselaw might develop from the Southern Union decision, and legislation will likely be introduced in Congress and state legislatures in response to the ruling.

Scott said the case also provided an intriguing glimpse at how the newest justices ­– President Barack Obama’s appointees Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor – would rule on a case involving Apprendi, which the court decided in a 5-4 ruling with a majority across the political spectrum in 2000.

Sotomayor wrote the opinion that was joined by Kagan and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg from the court’s liberal wing, along with Chief Justice John Roberts and conservative justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

Scott said the government had hoped that Apprendi had hit a high-water mark in 2009. That’s when a 5-4 Supreme Court appeared to set back the Apprendi rule in Oregon v. Ice, 07-901. There, the court ruled judges were not prohibited from finding facts to determine whether sentences on different offenses should be served concurrently or consecutively.

“Nothing surprises me in the Apprendi line of cases,” Scott said. “You have such a scramble of justices. … They don’t break down on predictable ideological lines.”

Lorenzo said justices left open other questions. Southern Union seems to suggest that Apprendi may apply to any penalties inflicted by the government for the commission of offenses, he explained. Also left for future consideration: “When does an offense rise beyond the level of ‘non-petty’ and become substantial enough to invoke the Apprendi rule?”

Scott also sees more Apprendi questions arising. The jury trial right could be a matter for the courts to decide in cases involving restitution determinations and in matters where asset forfeiture is ordered, he said.•

ADVERTISEMENT

Post a comment to this story

COMMENTS POLICY
We reserve the right to remove any post that we feel is obscene, profane, vulgar, racist, sexually explicit, abusive, or hateful.
 
You are legally responsible for what you post and your anonymity is not guaranteed.
 
Posts that insult, defame, threaten, harass or abuse other readers or people mentioned in Indiana Lawyer editorial content are also subject to removal. Please respect the privacy of individuals and refrain from posting personal information.
 
No solicitations, spamming or advertisements are allowed. Readers may post links to other informational websites that are relevant to the topic at hand, but please do not link to objectionable material.
 
We may remove messages that are unrelated to the topic, encourage illegal activity, use all capital letters or are unreadable.
 

Messages that are flagged by readers as objectionable will be reviewed and may or may not be removed. Please do not flag a post simply because you disagree with it.

Sponsored by
ADVERTISEMENT
Subscribe to Indiana Lawyer
  1. Where may I find an attorney working Pro Bono? Many issues with divorce, my Disability, distribution of IRA's, property, money's and pressured into agreement by my attorney. Leaving me far less than 5% of all after 15 years of marriage. No money to appeal, disabled living on disability income. Attorney's decision brought forward to judge, no evidence ever to finalize divorce. Just 2 weeks ago. Please help.

  2. For the record no one could answer the equal protection / substantive due process challenge I issued in the first post below. The lawless and accountable only to power bureaucrats never did either. All who interface with the Indiana law examiners or JLAP be warned.

  3. Hi there I really need help with getting my old divorce case back into court - I am still paying support on a 24 year old who has not been in school since age 16 - now living independent. My visitation with my 14 year old has never been modified; however, when convenient for her I can have him... I am paying past balance from over due support, yet earn several thousand dollars less. I would contact my original attorney but he basically molest me multiple times in Indy when I would visit.. Todd Woodmansee - I had just came out and had know idea what to do... I have heard he no longer practices. Please help1

  4. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  5. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

ADVERTISEMENT