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Southern Union Co. v. United States - United States Supreme Court Holds That Jury Must Determine Facts To Increase Criminal Fine

In a 6-3 decision authored by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the United States Supreme Court held that the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial prohibits a judge from determining those facts necessary to increase the fine imposed in a criminal case. Instead, such findings are left squarely within the province of the jury.

Southern Union Co. v. United States, 11-94 builds on Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U. S. 466 (2000) and Blakely v.  Washington, 542 U. S. 296 (2004).  To wit:

"While the punishments at stake in these cases were imprisonment or a death sentence, there is no principled basis under Apprendi to treat criminal fines differently.  Apprendi’s “core concern”—to reserve to the jury “the determination of facts that warrant punishment for a specific statutory offense,”  Ice, 555 U.S., at 170—applies whether the sentence is a criminal fine or imprisonment or death.  Criminal fines, like these other forms of punishment, are penalties inflicted by the sovereign for the commission of offenses. Fines were by far the most common form of noncapital punishment in colonial America and they continue to be frequently imposed today. And, the amount of a fine, like the maximum term of imprisonment or eligibility for the death penalty, is often determined by reference to particular facts.  The Government argues that fines are less onerous than incarceration and the death sentence and therefore should be exempt from  Apprendi. But where a fine is  substantial enough to trigger the Sixth Amendment’s jury-trial guarantee, Apprendi applies in full."

The decision overturns an $18 million penalty against a pipeline operator for illegally storing mercury.

Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Anthony M. Kennedy and Samuel A. Alito Jr. dissented.

More after the jump...