US Supreme Court Increases Your 6th Amendment Rights
The United States Supreme Court is continuing a string of opinions where the Court has ruled that “any fact (other than a prior conviction) that exposes a defendant to a sentence in excess of the relevant statutory maximum must be found by a jury, not a judge, and must be established beyond a reasonable doubt, not merely by a preponderance of the evidence.”
The Court began the string in its opinion in the case of Apprendi v. New Jersey. In the New Jersey case, the Court ruled that any facts relied on by a judge to sentence a defendant to death must be determined by a jury, not a judge. The New Jersey ruling also declared that such facts must be determined beyond a reasonable doubt, not by a preponderance of the evidence. The Court’s most recent ruling, in the case of Cunningham v. California, continues the string by applying the New Jersey ruling to California’s sentencing guidelines.
In the California case, Cunningham was convicted of continuous sexual abuse of a child under 14. Under California’s “determinate sentencing law” (DSL), the judge could impose one of three terms of imprisonment: a lower term of 6 years, a middle term of 12 years (the relevant statutory maximum according to the US Supreme Court), or an upper term of 16 years. The judge found by a preponderance of the evidence that there were “additional circumstances in aggravation” allowing him to impose the upper term of 16 years.
The guilt of a defendant in a criminal defense case must be established beyond a reasonable doubt. In civil cases, and other matters, facts can be determined by a preponderance of the evidence. A fact is true, by a preponderance of the evidence, if it is more likely true than not true.
A defendant charged with a felony has a right to a trial by jury. Following conviction, the judge can sentence a convicted criminal to a prison sentence within a range established by law. In some states, a judge may impose a shorter sentence if factors exist in the defendant’s favor or a longer sentence if circumstances weighing against the defendant exist.
According to the Supreme Court’s rulings, a judge can only impose a sentence within the range specified by law. If the judge imposes a sentence longer than the high end of the range, any facts used to impose the longer sentence must be determined by the jury, not the judge. Such facts must be established beyond a reasonable doubt, just like the guilt of the defendant.
The US Supreme Court has sent the California case back to the trial court with instructions to either impose the middle term of 12 years upon Cunningham or follow the Court’s rulings in imposing the 16 year sentence.