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July 19, 2012

Effective review of Southern Union's impact and potential import

For various understandable reasons, the Supreme Court significant Sixth Amendment ruling in Southern Union has not gotten all that much attention.  But this effective Indiana Lawyer article, headlined "US Supreme Court: Criminal fines require jury finding," provides a nice reminder of the significance of the ruling. Here are excerpts from this piece:

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....

“This is definitely a win for the defendants,” [Indiana University law professor Ryan] 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....

Southern Union seems to suggest that Apprendi may apply to any penalties inflicted by the government for the commission of offenses.... 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.

July 19, 2012 at 07:12 PM | Permalink

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