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Court Discusses Due Process Clause


In this criminal case, petitioner fired several shots into the home of an African-American family and made a statement which he later retracted that he did not want the family in his neighborhood because of their race. A New Jersey Criminal Lawyer said that, he was charged under New Jersey law with, second-degree possession of a firearm for an unlawful purpose, (possession of a weapon), which carries a prison term of 5 to 10 years. The count did not refer to the State’s hate crime statute, which provides for an enhanced sentence if a trial judge finds, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the defendant committed the crime with a purpose to intimidate a person or group because of, inter alia, race. After petitioner pleaded guilty, a New York Criminal Lawyer said that the prosecutor filed a motion to enhance the sentence. The court found by a preponderance of the evidence that the shooting was racially motivated and sentenced petitioner to a 12-year term on the firearms count. In upholding the sentence, the appeals court rejected petitioner’s claim that the Due Process Clause requires that a bias finding be proved to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. The State Supreme Court affirmed.

The issue in this case is whether petitioner has been denied of his right to due process.
The Court held that the Constitution requires that any fact that increases the penalty for a crime beyond the prescribed statutory maximum, other than the fact of a prior conviction, must be submitted to a jury and proved beyond a reasonable doubt.

The answer to the narrow constitutional question presented whether petitioner’s sentence was permissible, given that it exceeds the 10-year maximum for the offense charged was foreshadowed by the holding in one of the cases decided by the Supreme Court, that, with regard to federal law, the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause and the Sixth Amendment’s notice and jury trial guarantees require that any fact other than prior conviction that increases the maximum penalty for a crime must be charged in an indictment, submitted to a jury, and proved beyond a reasonable doubt. The Fourteenth Amendment commands the same answer when a state statute is involved. The Fourteenth Amendment right to due process and the Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury, taken together, entitle a criminal defendant to a jury determination that he is guilty of every element of the crime with which he is charged, beyond a reasonable doubt. The historical foundation for these principles extends down centuries into the common law. A Staten Island Criminal Lawyer said while judges in this country have long exercised discretion in sentencing, such discretion is bound by the range of sentencing options prescribed by the legislature. The historic inseparability of verdict and judgment and the consistent limitation on judges’ discretion highlight the novelty of a scheme that removes the jury from the determination of a fact that exposes the defendant to a penalty exceeding the maximum he could receive if punished according to the facts reflected in the jury verdict alone.

The Pennsylvania case was the first case in which the Court used “sentencing factor” to refer to a fact that was not found by the jury but could affect the sentence imposed by the judge. In finding that the scheme at issue there did not run afoul of petitioner’s strictures, this Court did not budge from the position that (1) constitutional limits exist to States’ authority to define away facts necessary to constitute a criminal offense, 477 U.S. at 85-88, and (2) a state scheme that keeps from the jury facts exposing defendants to greater or additional punishment may raise serious constitutional concerns, 477 U.S. at 88. In another case in which the Court upheld a federal law allowing a judge to impose an enhanced sentence based on prior convictions not alleged in the indictment represents at best an exceptional departure from the historic practice.
In light of the constitutional rule expressed here, the Court held that the New Jersey’s practice cannot stand. It allows a jury to convict a defendant of a second-degree offense on its finding beyond a reasonable doubt and then allows a judge to impose punishment identical to that New Jersey provides for first-degree crimes on his finding, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the defendant’s purpose was to intimidate his victim based on the victim’s particular characteristic. The State’s argument that the biased purpose finding is not an “element” of a distinct hate crime offense but a “sentencing factor” of motive is nothing more than a disagreement with the rule applied in this case. Beyond this, the argument cannot succeed on its own terms. It does not matter how the required finding is labeled, but whether it exposes the defendant to a greater punishment than that authorized by the jury’s verdict, as does the sentencing “enhancement” here. A New York Sex Crimes Lawyer said the degree of culpability the legislature associates with factually distinct conduct has significant implications both for a defendant’s liberty and for the heightened stigma associated with an offense the legislature has selected as worthy of greater punishment. That the State placed the enhancer within the criminal code’s sentencing provisions does not mean that it is not an essential element of the offense.

Accordingly, the Court held that the judgment is reversed and the case is remanded.

Every person charged of a crime is entitled to due process of law. If you feel that your right has been violated, seek the advice of a New Jersey Criminal Attorney and/ or New Jersey Petit Larceny Attorney in order to defend your case. New Jersey Grand Larceny Attorney will help you. Call us at Stephen Bilkis and Associates for free consultation.

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