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Federal Sentencing: Criminal Fines Are Covered By Apprendi And The Sixth Amendment

Southern Union v. United States

Criminal fines are covered by The “Apprendi” Principle– (i.e. that judicial determination of any fact that increases a defendant’s maximum sentence, violates the defendant’s Sixth Amendment Right to Trial by Jury)

Southern Union v. United States,132 S. Ct. 2344

Decided: June 21 2012 Supreme Court of the United States

Issue: The defendant corporation was tried and convicted of a hazardous waste storage offense. At sentencing, the court sought to impose a fine  based on the number of days the defendant was in violation of the relevant statute (the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act 1976 (RCRA)). The maximum possible punishment amounted to 762 days at $50,000 per day – i.e. $38.1 million. Given that the jury instructions allowed a conviction based on a single day’s violation, the issue was whether this was in violation of the defendant’s Sixth Amendment Rights, in light of the principle in Apprendi v New Jersey (2000).

Holding: It was. The determination of any fact (other than prior convictions) that increases a defendant’s maximum potential sentence is a matter for the jury and needs to be proven beyond reasonable doubt.

Facts: The petitioner, a natural gas distributor was indicted by grand jury on multiple counts of violation of environmental statutes. The petitioner had unlawfully stored liquid mercury at a facility in Rhode Island. Youths had broken in; disturbed the mercury and local residents were temporarily displaced with many undergoing testing for mercury poisoning. The first count was that the defendant had knowingly stored the mercury “from on or about September 19, 2002 until on or about October 19 2004”. Violations of the statute are punishable with a fine of up to $50,000 per day.

At sentencing, the probation office set a maximum fine of $38.1 million on the basis that the defendant had been in violation for 762 days. The petitioner objected firstly on the basis that the jury verdict form listed only the violation’s approximate start date. Most significantly, the instructions to the jury permitted a conviction on the basis of just one day’s violation. The reasoning of the defendant therefore was that the maximum penalty permitted on the basis of the jury conviction was a fine in respect of one day’s violation – i.e. $50,000. For a fine to be imposed above this level during sentencing proceedings would involve the type of judicial fact finding that had been deemed unconstitutional under Apprendi.

The District Court actually held that Apprendi does apply to fines. However it also held that given the context of what went on at the trial, the jury had in fact found that there had been a 762-day violation. A fine of $6 million  and a “community service obligation” of $12 million was imposed. Interestingly, the Court of Appeals rejected the idea that the jury had in reality given its verdict on the basis of a 762 day violation. It did however take the view that Apprendi does not apply to criminal fines.

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the decision and ruled that Apprendi does apply to fines.

Analysis: The main argument advanced by the government was that fines are fundamentally different to incarceration and the death penalty. In particular, they do not involve any deprivation of liberty. The government referred back to the Apprendi judgment and pointed out that it referred specifically to the physical deprivation of liberty that imprisonment occasions. Here, we are dealing with something utterly different in nature – i.e. money -which was quite simply not an issue with which Apprendi was concerned when violation of the Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury was being considered.

This line of argument was not accepted. The fact that a fine does not involve loss of liberty does not in itself render it ‘insignificant’. Indeed, in practical terms a fine is generally the most appropriate means of punishment where there is a corporate or organizational defendant involved. That does not mean that the punishment, or indeed the offense itself is in any way trivial or petty. The Supreme Court took the view that there was no good reason why the Apprendi principle should not be applied to this situation.  The scenario here can for example be easily distinguished from the situation where the maximum authorized punishment allowable is a fine so unsubstantial that the underlying offense is considered “petty” so that the Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury is not even triggered at all. 

Stephen Preziosi is a criminal appeals lawyer in New York City’s Times Square.  His firm handles both New York Criminal Appeals and Federal Criminal Appeals throughout the nation.