Supreme Court Reverses Criminal Fine

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On June 21, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its opinion in Southern Union Co. v. United States, 132 S. Ct. 2344 (2012). The 6-3 decision overturned an $18 million criminal penalty for the illegal storage of mercury on the grounds that facts used to increase the amount of the monetary penalty were not proven to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt.

Southern Union argued that imposing any penalty greater than the one-day RCRA maximum criminal fine of $50,000 would be unconstitutional under Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U. S. 466 (2000). Apprendi holds that the jury-trial guarantee of the Sixth Amendment requires that the government prove beyond a reasonable doubt any fact (other than the fact of a prior conviction) that increases the maximum punishment authorized for a particular crime.

After trial, Southern Union argued that the jury verdict only supported imposing a monetary fine for one day of violation. The District Court held that Apprendi applies to criminal fines as well as other punishments, but concluded that the jury found a 762-day violation. The District Court 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 affirmed the sentence because it held that Apprendi does not apply to criminal fines.

The Supreme Court reversed and remanded, holding that the rule of Apprendi applies to the imposition of criminal fines.

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