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June 10, 2016

Split Seventh Circuit panel debates import and impact of jury finding of drug quantity rejected by the judge at sentencing

A helpful reader altered me to an interesting Seventh Circuit ruling today in US v. Saunders, No. 13-3910 (7th Cir. June 10, 2016) (available here). These passages from the partial dissent authored by Judge Manion provides a reasonable look into why this split panel's sentencing work is blog-worthy:

The jury in this case found beyond a reasonable doubt that the drug amount was between 100 grams and 1 kilogram.  This necessarily implies that the jury found the offense did not involve 3.69 kilograms, but at sentencing, the district court found a 3.69-kilogram amount.  These findings are irreconcilable.  By its finding, the district court overrode the jury’s decision. The Sixth Amendment does not allow this.  I dissent from this aspect of the court’s decision, but join in all other aspects....

A straightforward reading of the jury-verdict form does not allow this court to find an “effective acquittal.”  The jury does not — in a single sentence, passing judgment on one count — actually convict and effectively acquit.  Here, the jury convicted Saunders and Bounds of a capped drug quantity, and its verdict should stand....

In its ruling today, the court affirms the district court’s application of Watts to this case.  It should not.  Watts stands for the simple principle that a sentencing court may consider conduct underlying an acquitted charge if that underlying conduct is proven by a preponderance of the evidence. Watts, 519 U.S. at 157.  Watts is therefore factually and legally distinguishable from this case. Instead of an acquittal, this case features an affirmative jury finding of fact.  An acquittal is a legal conclusion, “not a finding of any fact,” and it “can only be an acknowledgment that the government failed to prove an essential element of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt.” See id. at 155 (internal quotation marks omitted)....

As the Supreme Court observed [in Watts], “That [acquittal] verdict does not preclude a finding by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant did, in fact, use or carry such a weapon, much less that he simply possessed the weapon in connection with a drug offense.” Id. at 157 (emphasis in original).  In contrast, the two results in this case cannot square: the defendants cannot have (1) possessed less than 1 kilogram and (2) also possessed 3.69 kilograms. By flatly contradicting the jury’s express factual finding, the sentencing judge in this case violated the Sixth Amendment rights of Saunders and Bounds.  And if the jury system is to mean anything, this outcome is a problem.

June 10, 2016 at 01:46 PM | Permalink

Comments

I hope that the defendant seeks Certiorari from the u.S. Supreme Court on this issue. The Seventh Circuit's majority opinion reflects an unConstitutional miscarriage of justice.

Posted by: Jim Gormley | Jun 10, 2016 2:25:20 PM

I agree with Jim. Maybe SCOTUS might see this case as a vehicle for a long overdue reconsideration of Watts.

Posted by: Stan Adelman | Jun 10, 2016 3:36:46 PM

What I don't understand about that opinion is that even the majority admits the form is confusing. So if the form is ambiguous, why wouldn't the rule of lenity apply in this case? Yes, it is not a criminal statute but the principle seems the same.

Posted by: Daniel | Jun 10, 2016 7:22:48 PM

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