The Sixth Amendment to the US Constitution provides “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.”
The right to a jury trial is a fundamental tenant in American democracy. So, it would seem clear that people accused of crimes should have the right to be tried by people in the community where the alleged offense was committed. A recent case before the US Supreme Court questioned the government’s dedication to that right.
Slate recently reported that the Court heard oral argument about whether the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial was being denied due to a new law. The case is United States vs. Haymond. The article reported that justices on different sides of the political spectrum raised concerns that the law may be depriving convicted people on release of their right to a jury trial for violating the conditions of the release.
The issues in the Haymond case
A new federal law, which applies to sex offense convictions, changed the punishment phase of a criminal conviction be ending the standards for parole. Parole was a way for those convicted of crimes to obtain an early release based on good behavior. During the parole period (the time from the release until the end of their sentence), the released person was expected to comply with the law, report to a parole office, and meet other conditions. If there was a violation, there would be a hearing before a judge. The judge could then end parole and return the person to prison – but only until the end of his/her original sentence.
The new statute provides that if someone who is convicted of a sex crime and is released from prison violates the terms of the release, that a judge MUST add prison time to the sentence. The additional time must be at least five years and could be for life. This new sentence could easily extend the prison time to more than that of the original sentence.
The statute also provides that the standard for violation of the release is not the typical standard in criminal cases – proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Rather, the standard is the one used in civil cases: a preponderance of the evidence (essentially more likely than not likely). Additionally, the statute provides that only the judge is needed to decide if there is violation. There is no need to provide for a jury to determine if the release terms were indeed violated.
The Supreme Court Justices questioned whether time beyond the original sentence could be extended without a jury trial. They also questioned whether the criminal standard of proof should be required instead of the civil standard.
According to the Slate Article, Justice Gorsuch was perturbed:
“’Why is the government so anxious to avoid having the involvement of citizens in this process?’ he asked Eric Feigin, assistant to the Solicitor General. ‘It would be a rather simple thing to convene a jury, wouldn’t it? Historically,’ Gorsuch continued, ‘there’s never been this kind of system before. Congress self-consciously created this system. And I guess … I’m just struggling. I just don’t understand why the government resists the involvement of a jury of a man’s or woman’s peers.’”
He was not the only one. Justice Sotomayor also questions the constitutionality of the preponderance of evidence rule: “I’m trying to figure out why a judge now gets to … find by a preponderance of the evidence, after you’ve been sentenced to the five years, that we really should have given you eight years.”
This is not the first time Justices Sotomayor and Gorsuch have teamed up to fight back against state and Congressional overreach in regard to the Sixth Amendment (Hester vs. United States), and we doubt it will be the last. As attorneys who believe the power of the Constitution is rooted in the rule of law, we are thrilled to see the Justice rightfully pushing back.
Sex offender crimes are among the most serious in Maryland. Defendants should understand they do have rights. These rights have always included the right to a jury trial and a right to a fair trial. To speak with an experienced criminal defense lawyer, call us at 301-464-2500 or use our contact form. Our offices are located in Bowie and Crofton, and we fight for clients throughout the state.