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Friday, July 19, 2024 | Back issues
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Supreme Court rules juries, not judges, may determine who is a career criminal

The high court gave juries greater control over enhancing sentences for accused career criminals.

WASHINGTON (CN) — The Supreme Court limited how criminal defendants are determined to meet qualifications under the Armed Career Criminal Act on Friday, ruling that juries must decide if an enhanced sentence is warranted.

“Judges may not assume the jury’s fact-finding function for themselves, let alone purport to perform it using a mere preponderance-of-the-evidence standard,” Justice Neil Gorsuch, a Donald Trump appointee, wrote for the court. “It would intrude on a power the Fifth and Sixth Amendments reserve to the American people.”

The 6-3 ruling elicited an unusual split among the court, with Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Amy Coney Barrett joining Gorsuch’s majority opinion. Justice Brett Kavanaugh led the dissent, joined by Justices Samuel Alito and Ketanji Brown Jackson.

Paul Erlinger was sentenced to 15 years in prison for burglaries he committed at 18 years old. Under the Armed Career Criminal Act, Erlinger’s four convictions qualified him for an enhanced sentence for possessing a firearm as a felon.

Erlinger argued he shouldn’t have qualified for the enhanced sentence because the burglaries were not committed on different occasions. In Wooden v. United States, the justices created a multifactor test to determine when a criminal defendant’s prior crimes counted as a single prior offense, rather than multiple offenses.

A judge said Erlinger’s burglary convictions should be considered four separate offenses, qualifying him for the Armed Career Criminal Act’s minimum mandatory sentence. Erlinger said the judge came to that conclusion using judicial fact-finding in violation of his Sixth Amendment rights.

The Seventh Circuit rejected Erlinger’s argument, but his Supreme Court appeal was unopposed. The government sided with Erlinger, agreeing that a jury should conduct any fact-finding to decide which prior offenses count under the Armed Career Criminal Act.

Jeffrey Fisher, an O’Melveny & Myers attorney representing Erlinger, told the justices that Erlinger was only asking to move the fact-finding from the judge over to the jury. The government told the court that this was a commonsense solution and that it had already conducted four of these trials successfully.

Nick Harper, an attorney with Gibson Dunn appointed to argue in favor of the lower court, said judges maintained authority over these proceedings according to precedent.

Gorsuch said precedent required the opposite conclusion. The court’s ruling, Gorsuch said, followed Apprendi v. New Jersey, where the justices held that only a jury could find facts that increase a criminal defendant’s penalties. Gorsuch notes that even the facts of Elinger’s case mirror Apprendi.

Like the defendant in Apprendi, Gorsuch said Elinger is entitled to a jury.

“While recognizing Mr. Erlinger was entitled to have a jury resolve ACCA’s occasions inquiry unanimously and beyond a reasonable doubt, we decide no more than that,” Gorsuch wrote. 

Gorsuch said that requiring a jury to answer these questions instead of a judge may not be efficient, but it is what the Constitution demands. 

“It may require assembling a group of the defendant’s peers to resolve unanimously even seemingly straightforward factual questions under a daunting reasonable doubt standard,” Gorsuch wrote. “Avoiding the prejudice associated with the introduction of evidence of past crimes may require careful attention, too. But the right to a jury trial ‘has always been’ an important part of what keeps this nation ‘free.’”

Roberts, a George W. Bush appointee, wrote a short concurrence to suggest that Erlinger still might not prevail in the lower courts. Roberts said violations of Erlinger’s Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights must pass the harmless error review.

“The Seventh Circuit should thus consider on remand the government’s contention that the error here was harmless,” Roberts wrote.

Kavanaugh, a Donald Trump appointee, based his dissent on the court’s ruling in Almendarez-Torres v. United States. In the 1998 case, the justices held that either a judge or jury could decide sentence enhancements based on recidivism. 

Since recidivism isn’t an element of the present crime and governments have taken different approaches to applying these kinds of sentencing enhancements, Kavanaugh said Almendarez-Torres requires the decision fall to the legislature. 

“To hold ‘that the Constitution requires that recidivism be deemed an ‘element’ of petitioner’s offense would mark an abrupt departure from a longstanding tradition’ where a judge or a jury could determine that a defendant is a recidivist,” Kavanaugh wrote. 

Kavanaugh said judges traditionally apply recidivism sentencing enhancements to avoid prejudicing the jury. 

“If the jury had to determine recidivism, the jury would hear highly prejudicial evidence about a defendant’s past criminal offenses at the trial for the present crime,” Kavanaugh wrote. 

Thomas, a George H.W. Bush appointee, joined the court’s ruling in full but wrote separately to suggest overruling Almendarez-Torres in the future.

Jackson, a Joe Biden appointee, wrote her own dissent, claiming that Apprendi was wrongly decided. 

“Like many jurists and other observers before me, I do not believe that Congress exceeds its constitutional authority when it empowers judges to make factual determinations related to punishment and directs that a particular sentencing result follow from such findings,” Jackson wrote.

Since Apprendi is a binding precedent, Jackson said it is probably infeasible to untangle the knots it has tied. Jackson said the flaws in the precedent prevented her from joining the majority in extending Apprendi’s holding.

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Categories / Appeals, Criminal

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