Southern Union Co. v. United States
567 U.S. ___ (2012)

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Justia Opinion Summary
The company was convicted of violating the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act for knowingly storing liquid mercury without a permit "on or about September 19, 2002 to October 19, 2004." Violations are punishable by a fine of not more than $50,000 per day, 42 U.S.C. 6928(d). The probation office calculated a maximum fine of $38.1 million, based on 762 days. The company argued that any fine greater than $50,000 would be unconstitutional under Apprendi v. New Jersey, which held that the Sixth Amendment requires that any fact (other than prior conviction) that increases maximum punishment be proved to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. The district court held that Apprendi applies to criminal fines, but concluded that the jury found a 762-day violation and imposed a fine of $6 million and a community service obligation of $12 million. The First Circuit affirmed on the ground that Apprendi does not apply to criminal fines. The Supreme Court reversed. Apprendi applies to criminal fines. The "core concern, to reserve to the jury determination of facts that warrant punishment for a specific statutory offense, applies whether the sentence is a criminal fine or imprisonment or death. Dissenters argued that facts relevant to a fine’s amount typically quantify the harm and do not define a separate set of acts for punishment. The majority rejected the assumption that, in determining maximum punishment, there is a constitutionally significant difference between a fact that is an "element" and one that is a "sentencing factor."

NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued. The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader. See United States v. Detroit Timber & Lumber Co., 200 U. S. 321 .

SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES

Syllabus

SOUTHERN UNION CO. v. UNITED STATES

certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the first circuit

No. 11–94. Argued March 19, 2012—Decided June 21, 2012

Petitioner Southern Union Company was convicted by a jury in federal court on one count of violating the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976 (RCRA) for having knowingly stored liquid mercury without a permit at a subsidiary’s facility “on or about September 19, 2002 to October 19, 2004.” Violations of the RCRA are punishable by, inter alia, a fine of not more than $50,000 for each day of violation. 42 U. S. C. §6928(d). At sentencing, the probation office calculated a maximum fine of $38.1 million, on the basis that Southern Union violated the RCRA for each of the 762 days from September 19, 2002, through October 19, 2004. Southern Union argued that imposing any fine greater than the 1-day penalty of $50,000 would be unconstitutional under Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U. S. 466 , which holds that the Sixth Amendment’s jury-trial guarantee requires that any fact (other than the fact of a prior conviction) that increases the maximum punishment authorized for a particular crime be proved to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. Southern Union contended that, based on the jury verdict and the District Court’s instructions, the only violation the jury necessarily found was for one day. The District Court held that Apprendi applies to criminal fines, but concluded from the “content and context of the verdict all together” that the jury found a 762-day violation. The court therefore set a maximum potential fine of $38.1 million, from which it imposed a fine of $6 million and a “community service obligation” of $12 million. On appeal, the First Circuit disagreed with the District Court that the jury necessarily found a violation of 762 days. But the First Circuit affirmed the sentence because it held that Apprendi does not apply to criminal fines.

Held: The rule of Apprendi applies to the imposition of criminal fines. Pp. 3−16.

     (a) Apprendi’s rule is “rooted in longstanding common-law practice,” Cunningham v. California, 549 U. S. 270 , and preserves the “historic jury function” of “determining whether the prosecution has proved each element of an offense beyond a reasonable doubt,” Oregon v. Ice, 555 U. S. 160 . This Court has repeatedly affirmed Apprendi’s rule by applying it to a variety of sentencing schemes that allow judges to find facts that increase a defendant’s maximum authorized sentence. See Cunningham, 549 U. S., at 274−275; United States v. Booker, 543 U. S. 220 –227; Blakely v. Washington, 542 U. S. 296 –300; Ring v. Arizona, 536 U. S. 584 –589; Ap-prendi, 530 U. S., at 468–469. 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. Pp. 3−8.

     (b) The “historical role of the jury at common law,” which informs the “scope of the constitutional jury right,” Ice, 555 U. S., at 170, supports applying Apprendi to criminal fines. To be sure, judges in the colonies and during the founding era had much discretion in determining whether to impose a fine and in what amount. But the exercise of such discretion is fully consistent with Apprendi, which permits courts to impose “judgment within the range prescribed by statute.” 530 U. S., at 481 (emphasis in original). The more salient question is what role the jury played in prosecutions for offenses that pegged the amount of a fine to the determination of specified facts. A review of both state and federal decisions discloses that the predominant practice was for such facts to be alleged in the indictment and proved to the jury. The rule that juries must determine facts that set a fine’s maximum amount is an application of the “two longstanding tenets of common-law criminal jurisprudence” on which Apprendi is based: first, “the ‘truth of every accusation’ against a defendant ‘should afterwards be confirmed by the unanimous suffrage of twelve of his equals and neighbours.’ ” Blakely, 542 U. S., at 301. And second, “ ‘an accusation which lacks any particular fact which the law makes essential to the punishment is . . . no accusation within the requirements of the common law, and is no accusation in reason.’ ” Ibid. Contrary to the Government’s contentions, neither United States v. Murphy, 16 Pet. 203, nor United States v. Tyler, 7 Cranch 285, overcomes the ample historical evidence that juries routinely found facts that set maximum criminal fines. Pp. 8−14.

     (c) The Government’s remaining arguments, echoed by the dissent, are unpersuasive. The Government claims that facts relevant to a fine’s amount typically quantify the harm caused by the defendant’s offense, and do not define a separate set of acts for punishment. The Government contends that only the latter determination implicates Apprendi’s concerns. But this argument rests on the rejected assumption that, in determining the maximum punishment for an offense, there is a constitutionally significant difference between a fact that is an “element” of the offense and one that is a “sentencing factor.” Further, the facts the District Court found in imposing a fine on Southern Union are not fairly characterized as merely quantifying the harm the company caused.

     The Government also argues that applying Apprendi to criminal fines will prevent States and the Federal Government from enact- ing statutes that calibrate the amount of a fine to a defendant’s culp-ability. But legislatures are free to enact such statutes, so long as the statutes are administered in conformance with the Sixth Amendment.

     Finally, the Government contends that requiring juries to determine facts related to fines will cause confusion, prejudice defendants, or be impractical. These policy arguments rehearse those made by the dissents in our prior Apprendi cases. They must be rejected because the rule the Government espouses is unconstitutional. In addition, because Apprendi is now more than a decade old, the reliance interests underlying the Government’s arguments are by this point attenuated. Pp. 14−16.

630 F. 3d 17, reversed and remanded.

     Sotomayor, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Roberts, C. J., and Scalia, Thomas, Ginsburg, and Kagan, JJ., joined. Breyer, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Kennedy and Alito, JJ., joined.

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