U.S. Supreme Court

Must Juries Decide Facts Leading to Higher Criminal Fines? Supreme Court to Decide

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether cases involving criminal fines should be governed by a Sixth Amendment decision involving prison sentences and jury fact-finding.

The Supreme Court granted cert today in a case seeking to overturn an $18 million penalty against Southern Union Co. for improper storage of mercury, the Associated Press reports. At issue is whether the principles of Apprendi v. New Jersey apply when criminal fines are at stake, SCOTUSblog reports. Apprendi required juries, rather than judges, to find facts that result in prison sentences that exceed the maximum.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers filed an amicus brief (PDF posted by SCOTUSblog) supporting Southern Union Co.

The Boston-based 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had upheld the fine. Its decision noted that homeless people and vandals were visiting the contaminated site, the Courthouse News Service reports. “Here, 140 pounds of mercury became the play toy of young vandals who spread it about, including at their homes in a local apartment complex, after they spilled it around Southern Union’s largely abandoned and ill-guarded Tidewater site in Pawtucket, Rhode Island,” the appeals court’s opinion said.

Sentencing Law and Policy offers this reaction to the cert grant: “Wowsa.” The blog says this term “is shaping up to be huge for sentencing fans.” The court also granted cert today in two cases dealing with crack cocaine sentences for defendants who were convicted but not yet sentenced when a more lenient sentencing law took effect.

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