Lewis v. United States
518 U.S. 322 (1996)

Annotate this Case

OCTOBER TERM, 1995

Syllabus

LEWIS v. UNITED STATES

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE SECOND CIRCUIT

No. 95-6465. Argued April 23, 1996-Decided June 24, 1996

Petitioner was charged with two counts of obstructing the mail, each charge carrying a maximum authorized prison sentence of six months. He requested a jury, but the Magistrate Judge ordered a bench trial, explaining that because she would not sentence him to more than six months' imprisonment, he was not entitled to a jury trial. The District Court affirmed. In affirming, the Court of Appeals noted that the Sixth Amendment jury trial right pertains only to those offenses for which the legislature has authorized a maximum penalty of over six months' imprisonment, and that because each offense charged here was petty in character, the fact that petitioner was facing more than six months' imprisonment in the aggregate did not entitle him to a jury trial. The court explained in dictum that because the offense's characterization as petty or serious determined the right to a jury trial, not the sentence faced, a trial judge's self-imposed limitation on sentencing could not deprive a defendant of that right.

Held:

1. A defendant who is prosecuted in a single proceeding for multiple petty offenses does not have a Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial where the aggregate prison term authorized for the offenses exceeds six months. The right to a jury trial is reserved for defendants accused of serious offenses and does not extend to petty offenses. Duncan v. Louisiana, 391 U. S. 145, 159. The most relevant criterion with which to assess the seriousness of an offense is the legislature's judgment of the offense's character, primarily as expressed in the maximum authorized prison term. An offense carrying a maximum term of six months or less is presumed petty, unless the legislature has authorized additional statutory penalties so severe as to indicate that it considered the offense serious. E. g., Blanton v. North Las Vegas, 489 U. S. 538, 543. Here, by setting the maximum prison term at six months, Congress categorized the offense of obstructing the mail as petty. The fact that petitioner was charged with two counts of a petty offense, and therefore faced an aggregate potential prison term greater than six months, does not change Congress' judgment of the particular offense's gravity, nor does it transform the petty offense into a serious one, to which the


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jury trial right would apply. Codispoti v. Pennsylvania, 418 U. S. 506, 511, and Taylor v. Hayes, 418 U. S. 488, distinguished. Pp.325-330.

2. Because petitioner is not entitled to a jury trial, the Court does not reach the question whether a judge's self-imposed limitation on sentencing may affect the jury trial right. P. 330.

65 F.3d 252, affirmed.

O'CONNOR, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which REHNQUIST, C. J., and SCALIA, SOUTER, and THOMAS, JJ., joined. KENNEDY, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which BREYER, J., joined, post, p. 330. STEVENS, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which GINSBURG, J., joined, post, p. 339.

Steven M. Statsinger argued the cause for petitioner.

With him on the briefs were Henriette D. Hoffman and David A. Lewis.

Cornelia T. L. Pillard argued the cause for the United States. On the brief were Solicitor General Days, Acting Assistant Attorney General Keeney, Deputy Solicitor General Dreeben, Richard P. Bress, and Louis M. Fischer.*

JUSTICE O'CONNOR delivered the opinion of the Court. This case presents the question whether a defendant who is prosecuted in a single proceeding for multiple petty offenses has a constitutional right to a jury trial where the aggregate prison term authorized for the offenses exceeds six months. We are also asked to decide whether a defendant who would otherwise have a constitutional right to a jury trial may be denied that right because the presiding judge has made a pretrial commitment that the aggregate sentence imposed will not exceed six months.

We conclude that no jury trial right exists where a defendant is prosecuted for multiple petty offenses. The Sixth

* David A. Reiser, John Vanderstar, and Jeffrey B. Coopersmith filed a brief for the National Legal Aid and Defender Association et al. as amici curiae urging reversal.

Christopher Warnock filed a brief for the Jury Trial Group as amicus curiae.


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Full Text of Opinion

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