Wednesday, June 30, 2004
Court sentencings on hold while ruling is deciphered
Previously, judges could make findings based on additional evidence prosecutors presented at sentencing.
A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that could affect the system of federal sentencing guidelines around the country has created uncertainty in the Western District of Virginia, the chief judge for the district said Monday.
In a decision that came down last week, a 5-4 majority for the Supreme Court found in the case of a man from Washington that a state court judge violated the man's Sixth Amendment constitutional right to a jury trial. The judge made findings that increased the man's sentence, instead of letting a jury decide the question.
The majority ruling by the Supreme Court said that any fact that increases a defendant's sentence has to be either conceded by the defendant, charged against the defendant in the indictment, or proven to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt, said Chief U.S. District Judge James Jones.
Previously, judges were entitled to make findings based on additional evidence prosecutors presented at sentencing that could affect a defendant's sentence. Judges also made their findings based on a lower standard of proof, known as the preponderance of the evidence.
Although the decision is likely to affect sentencing in state courts in about a dozen states, The New York Times reported, the legal principle behind the ruling also could affect federal sentencing guidelines, Jones said.
"I think there's a lot of confusion among lawyers, clients and federal judges all over the country," Jones said of the decision. He said that he has continued sentencings to give lawyers on both sides of the courtroom time to figure out how the decision might apply at the federal level.
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's dissenting opinion in the case raised the possibility that the ruling could apply to thousands of cases in which federal judges make independent findings to determine a defendant's sentence, Jones said.
For example, the ruling could affect drug cases, Jones said. In the federal system, a defendant's sentence is determined in part based on the weight of the drugs involved in the case. The question of the amount of drugs in a case often is hotly contested at a defendant's sentencing, Jones said, as it can affect the sentence imposed.
As it stands in the federal system, the judge makes the final determination on what drug weight is involved in a case, based on arguments from prosecutors, defense attorneys, and a presentencing report prepared by a probation officer.
But the Blakely v. Washington decision could mean that the question of how much drug weight is involved in a case should be determined by a jury, not a judge, Jones said.
Federal sentencing guidelines became effective in 1987 in an effort to make sentencing more uniform across the United States. But some judges, including Senior U.S. District Judge James Turk, have criticized the guidelines for reducing the judge's role in sentencing. Turk could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
U.S. Attorney John Brownlee said that his office is waiting for guidance from the Department of Justice on how to proceed in the wake of the decision. He said that his office had asked for continuances in cases in which the cases could be affected by the ruling.
Roanoke defense attorney Melissa Friedman said that she doesn't think the decision will affect state court cases in Virginia, because sentencing guidelines in the state system are discretionary, not mandatory.
But she said she could see the issue play out in a federal fraud case, for example, where the amount of money a defendant took might be in dispute.
Friedman also said that assuming the case is read to affect federal sentencing guidelines, it could affect federal defendants waiting to be sentenced and federal defendants whose convictions are on appeal. She also said that the ruling could affect defendants who challenge their convictions in habeas corpus petitions.