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U.S. Supreme Court

Supreme Court Rules Juries Must Determine Facts Used to Set Substantial Criminal Fines

Posted Jun 21, 2012 9:35 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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The U.S. Supreme Court has extended its decisions that require juries to find facts that lead to increased prison sentences or capital punishment.

In Southern Union Company v. United States, the court said the same principle applies to criminal fines. Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote the majority opinion (PDF). Justice Stephen G. Breyer dissented in an opinion joined by Justices Anthony M. Kennedy and Samuel A. Alito Jr.

The decision extends the reach of the 2000 decision Apprendi v. New Jersey, which said the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial bars judges from increasing prison sentences beyond the statutory maximum based on facts that aren’t submitted to a jury. “We see no principled basis under Apprendi for treating criminal fines differently,” Sotomayor wrote in the decision issued Thursday.

Petioner Southern Union Co. was convicted for storing liquid mercury without a permit, Sotomayor wrote. The company was charged after two youths broke into a company facility in Rhode Island, played with the mercury and spread it around the complex.

The statute set the fine for the violation at no more than $50,000 a day; the probation office found the violation occurred over the course of 762 days, for a maximum fine of $38.1 million. A judge fined the company $6 million and required it to fulfill a $12 million “community service obligation."

The government had argued Apprendi shouldn’t apply because fines are less onerous than incarceration and the death penalty. Sotomayor disagreed with the reasoning. “Not all fines are insubstantial, and not all offenses punishable by fines are petty,” Sotomayor wrote. When a fine is substantial enough to trigger the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial, she said, “Apprendi applies in full.”

Prior coverage:

ABAJournal.com: "Does Apprendi Limit Judges’ Findings on Corporate Fines? Justices Mull the Issue"

ABAJournal.com: "Must Juries Decide Facts Leading to Higher Criminal Fines? Supreme Court to Decide"

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