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Southern Union Co. v. U.S.

Summarized by: 

Date Filed: June 21, 2012
Case #: 11-94
Sotomayor, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, which Roberts, C.J., and Scalia, Thomas, Ginsburg and Kagan, J.J., joined. Breyer, J., filed a dissenting opinion, which Kennedy and Alito, J.J., joined.
Full Text Opinion: http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/11pdf/11-94a1b2.pdf

Sentencing: When a criminal fine is sufficient to trigger the Sixth Amendment jury-trial guarantee, facts that would increase the penalty beyond the statutory maximum must be submitted to a jury and proved beyond a reasonable doubt.

Respondent was convicted of storing hazardous liquid mercury without a permit, “on or about September 19, 2002 to October 19, 2004,” in violation of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (42 U.S.C. § 6901 et seq.). The jury was not asked to determine the exact duration of the violation. In sentencing, the probation office set a maximum fine of $38.1 million, calculated by assessing the $50,000 maximum daily fine for each of the 762 days between September 19, 2002 and October 19, 2004. Respondent appealed on the basis that the jury never determined the exact duration of the violation. The Court of Appeals for the First Circuit upheld the sentence, agreeing that the jury had not determined the duration of the violation, but holding that Apprendi did not apply to criminal fines.

The Supreme Court reversed, holding there is no principled distinction between criminal fines and imprisonment for the purpose of Apprendi because Apprendi requires that any fact other than a prior conviction that increases the penalty for a crime beyond the statutory maximum must be submitted to the jury and determined beyond a reasonable doubt. The rule preserves the historic fact-finding function of the jury. Where a fine is sufficiently substantial to trigger the Sixth Amendment jury-trial guarantee, Apprendi applies.