Justices Nix Heavy Sentences for Repeat Sex Offenders

WASHINGTON (CN) — In an opinion that aligns Justice Neil Gorsuch with his liberal colleagues, the Supreme Court overturned a law that imposes heightened punishments on sex offenders who are caught with child pornography.

“Only a jury, acting on proof beyond a reasonable doubt, may take a person’s liberty. That promise stands as one of the Constitution’s most vital protections against arbitrary government,” Gorsuch wrote for the plurality Wednesday. “Yet in this case a congressional statute compelled a federal judge to send a man to prison for a minimum of five years without empaneling a jury of his peers or requiring the government to prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. As applied here, we do not hesitate to hold that the statute violates the Fifth and Sixth Amendments.”

In the underlying case, a federal judge sentenced Andre Haymond to an additional five years in prison, the mandatory minimum, after finding that Haymond had violated his parole by possessing child porn.

Probation officers caught Haymond with the images in a surprise 2015 search of his apartment while Haymond was two years into a 10-year term of supervised release for an earlier child-porn conviction. 

On appeal, however, the 10th Circuit found it unconstitutional that the mandatory-minimum law, codified at Section 3583(K) of Title 18 “imposes heightened punishment on sex offenders based, not on their original crimes of conviction, but on new conduct for which they have not been convicted by a jury beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The Justice Department urged the Supreme Court to reverse, saying that supervised release is by its nature conditional and includes “the prospect of reimprisonment if the defendant proves unable to comply.”

Declining to do so, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined Gorsuch’s opinion in full, and Justice Stephen Breyer concurred in the judgment.

The rest of the court’s conservative members meanwhile joined a stinging dissent by Justice Samuel Alito that calls the plurality opinion “irreconcilable with precedent, and sports rhetoric with potentially revolutionary implications.”

Touting the more narrow Breyer opinion as having “saved our jurisprudence,” Alito said “the plurality opinion appears to have been carefully crafted for the purpose of laying the groundwork for later decisions of much broader scope.” (Emphasis in original.)

“In short, under the plurality opinion, the whole system of supervised release would be like a 40-ton truck speeding down a steep mountain road with no brakes,” the dissent continues later.

Breyer noted that he agrees with Alito’s argument “that the role of the judge in a supervised-release proceeding is consistent with traditional parole.”

Still, the justice found this stance unable to resolve concerns with the post-sentencing program.

“The consequences for violation of conditions of supervised release under §3583(e), which governs most revocations, are limited by the severity of the original crime of conviction, not the conduct that results in revocation,” Breyer wrote. 

Chief Justice John Roberts joined the dissent in full as did Justices Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh.

Neither the Department of Justice nor Haymond’s attorney, William Dixon Lunn Jr., returned requests for comment by press time.

Rakesh Kilaru, an attorney with the firm Wilkinson Walsh + Eskovitz, said he was pleased with the high court’s decision.

“Regardless how this statute describes the additional punishment it imposes, the triggering of a new mandatory minimum prison term requires both factfinding by a jury and proof beyond a reasonable doubt,” said Kilaru, whose firm filed an amicus brief in the case on behalf of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and the advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

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