Attorney J. Bradley Smith answering the question: “If I simply intend to plead guilty, why do I need a lawyer?”
A divided Supreme Court ruled in an important case last week that it is unconstitutional for judges to use current federal sentencing guidelines if they contain harsher penalties than the sentencing guidelines in place at the time the original crime was committed.
The case before the Court dealt with whether current discretionary sentencing guidelines have enough force to put criminal defendant at risk of unconstitutional additional punishment. The question the justices tackled was whether current, harsher guidelines have enough weight with judges that even considering them harms the freedom of defendants whose crimes were governed by earlier sentencing guidelines. Specifically this issue concerns the ex post facto clause of the Constitution which prohibits retroactive punishment.
The case, Peugh v. United States, concerned a man who committed bank fraud back in the late 1990s. It took a long time for his case to be tried and for a sentence to be handed down, more than 11 years in fact. By 2010, a new round of sentencing guidelines had been issued which contained a suggested sentencing range of between 70 and 87 months for Peugh’s crime. The issue was that at the time the crimes were perpetrated, the sentencing range was dramatically more lenient, only 30 to 37 months. The judge who heard the case ultimately chose a 70-month sentence, something that many believed was clearly influenced by the new guidelines.
Justice Sonya Sotomayor wrote the majority opinion and noted that the gap between even the low end of the sentencing guidelines was 33 months, nearly a three-year difference in jail time. Sotomayor wrote that though the guidelines are not mandatory, they carry so much influence that judges feel inclined to carefully stick to the ranges contained in them. Judges have a tendency to view the guidelines as providing a starting point to construct a prison sentence and this presents a constitutional problem for criminal defendants.
Given the influence of sentencing guidelines in the minds of judges, Sotomayor said the ex post facto clause of the Constitution was violated in this case because the new, harsher guidelines subjected the man to enhanced retroactive punishment. This means that future defendants do not need to fear being harshly sentenced under newly tough sentencing guidelines.
Arnold & Smith, PLLC is a Charlotte based criminal defense, traffic violation defense and civil litigation law firm servicing Charlotte and the surrounding area. If you or someone you know need legal assistance, please contact Arnold & Smith, PLLC today at (704) 370-2828.
“Harsher Sentencing Guidelines Can’t Be Used for Old Offenses, Justices Say,” by Adam Liptak, published at NYTimes.com.
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