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Sometimes the black letter law passed by the legislature is unclear. The legislature can’t anticipate every possible fact scenario when they pass a law, so it lay to the courts to interpret the law and give guidance to what it means. This interpretation is called case law. When the court decides a certain meeting to the law it essentially answers a legal question. Lawyers and other courts then can rely on that ruling when they have a similar issue in their case. The following case answers the question above.

Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466 (2000).

This case answers the following question:

Do facts used to enhance prison sentences have to be found by a jury and beyond a reasonable doubt?

This case dealt with the intersection of statutory “sentence enhancers” or “aggravating factors” and a criminal defendant’s right to a trial by jury, guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment. Id. at 468-69. The Court ultimately determined that the Fourteenth Amendment incorporates the rationale of Jones v. United States, 526 U.S. 227 (1999) to the States, requiring that “under the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment and the notice and jury trial guarantees of the Sixth Amendment, any fact (other than prior conviction) that increases the maximum penalty of a crime must be charged in the indictment, submitted to a jury, and proven beyond a reasonable doubt.” Id. at 476.

The petitioner in this matter was charged with 23-counts arising out of a shooting based in part on racial animus. Id. at 469. He ultimately pled to 3 counts, one of which was the prosecution requested an enhanced sentence because the offense was a hate crime. Id. at 470. The judge took evidence regarding whether or not the crime was motivated by racial bias. Id. Ultimately, the judge found that sufficient evidence existed to support the enhanced sentence. Id. at 471.

The Court began by noting the limited inquiry that the petitioner had brought before the Court: whether enhancing factors must be found beyond a reasonable doubt by a jury. Id. at 475-76. Having framed the issue, the Court made quick work of the state’s argument against requiring all enhancing factors to be found beyond a reasonable doubt and by a jury. Id. at 476-77. The Court did not find any meaning in the distinction between an “element” of a crime and “a sentencing factor.” Id. at 478. It relied upon the fact that, at English common law, the sentence for crimes (albeit very harsh) were readily known and the judge would only apply that sentence. Id. at 480. This is consistent with the promises of the Bill of Rights, that crimes and punishments must be known to the accused, rather than assembled after the acts have occurred. Id. at 483-84.

The Court noted that it had been consistent in this approach as applied to federal sentencing schemes. Id. at 486-87. There is one exception, though, that the Court acknowledged: previous sentences. Id. at 490. Aside from this exception, the Court noted it endorsed the rule formerly contained in the concurrence of Jones: “It is unconstitutional for a legislature to remove from the jury the assessment of facts that increase the prescribed range of penalties to which a criminal defendant is exposed. It is equally clear that such facts must be established by proof beyond a reasonable doubt.” Id. at 490.

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