Judge Increases Defendants’ Sentences in Drug Case Based on Acquitted Conduct, Supreme Court Rejects Their Appeal

“Innocent until proven guilty” is a fundamental principle of our criminal justice system, except that it is often not nearly so simple. The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees criminal defendants the right to a trial by jury. If a trial results in an acquittal, the state cannot charge a person with the same offense again. Even if a jury acquits a person of a particular offense, however, a judge may still be able to use evidence of that offense in determining sentencing for a different offense. This recently happened in a case where a conviction of one drug offense resulted in a substantial prison sentence, based on evidence of a different offense for which the jury acquitted the defendants. The Supreme Court declined to hear the defendants’ appeal in October, although an unlikely alliance of Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Ginsberg strongly dissented.

The three defendants who appealed to the Supreme Court were charged with distribution of crack cocaine and conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine. After a trial that lasted nearly eight months, the jury spent about two months deliberating. It convicted the defendants on a single count each of distribution of 500 grams of crack, and it acquitted them on all of the conspiracy charges. Each defendant faced at least five years in prison, up to a maximum of 20-30 years. 21 U.S.C. ยง 841(b)(1)(B).

At sentencing, the district court found by a preponderance of evidence that the defendants had engaged in a conspiracy to distribute crack. It took the conspiracy into account when pronouncing sentences ranging from 15 to more than 18 years. The defendants appealed, arguing both that the court’s findings regarding the conspiracy were procedurally unreasonable and that they violated their Sixth Amendment right to have questions of fact decided by a jury.

Courts have generally held that a judge may take evidence of “acquitted conduct” into account without violating a defendant’s Sixth Amendment rights. The DC Circuit Court of Appeals found no procedural errors in the district court’s findings, and it also rejected the defendant’s Sixth Amendment argument. United States v. Jones, 744 F.3d 1362 (D.C. Cir. 2014). It stated that every federal circuit appellate court has reached the same conclusion about acquitted conduct. Id. at 1369; see United States v. Farias, 469 F.3d 393 (5th Cir. 2006). It also cited the Supreme Court’s decision striking down mandatory federal sentencing guidelines, United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220 (2005), in support of judges’ wide discretion in determining sentencing.

The key distinction between a jury’s acquittal and a judge’s findings during sentencing appears to be the burden of proof. A jury must find that the prosecution proved the defendants guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. A judge’s findings must only meet the much lower burden of a preponderance of evidence. Even Justice Sotomayor, before her Supreme Court days, found “no logical inconsistency” in finding a preponderance of evidence despite the existence of reasonable doubt. United States v. Vaughn, 430 F.3d 518, 527 (2nd Cir. 2005). That view may satisfy judges, but it offers little consolation to people who believe that an acquittal should mean an end to a criminal proceeding.

For more than two decades, criminal defense attorney Michael J. Brown has represented people in west Texas who have been charged with state and federal criminal offenses. Contact us today online or at (432) 687-5157 to schedule a confidential consultation with a skilled and experienced advocate.

More Blog Posts:

Fifth Circuit Rules on Evidence Requirements in Counterfeit Money Case, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, November 19, 2014
U.S. Supreme Court Rules on “Straw Buyer” Gun Law, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, October 27, 2014
Clemency, Sentencing Reforms Offer Hope to Thousands of Nonviolent Drug Offenders Currently in Prison, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, July 23, 2014

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