Can a judge's imposition of a sentencing enhancement based on a fact not found by the jury be upheld under the harmless error doctrine if it can be shown beyond a reasonable doubt that the jury would have made the same finding?
A jury found that defendant Recuenco assaulted his wife using a “deadly weapon,” but the jury was never asked to find whether he used a “firearm.” Afterwards, the trial judge—independent of the jury—found that Recuenco used a “firearm” and increased his sentence by three years. Where the judge’s failure to instruct the jury about a “firearm” did not influence their verdict, may a reviewing court uphold the resulting sentence if it finds the erroneous instruction was harmless? Or must the court vacate the sentence because the error tainted the entire trial? The State of Washington argues that an incomplete jury instruction qualifies as a harmless error. To the contrary, Recuenco argues that the judge's imposition of an enhanced sentence based on facts not found by the jury violates his Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial.
Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties
Whether error as to the definition of a sentencing enhancement should be subject to harmless error analysis where it is shown beyond a reasonable doubt that the error did not contribute to the verdict on the enhancement.
Defendant Arturo Recuenco became enraged at his wife after learning that she did not prepare dinner for his relatives. Brief for Petitioner at 3. He picked up a metal pipe, smashed it onto a stove, and threatened her with an unloaded gun. Id. Recuenco was charged with second-degree assault and with a lengthier sentence for using a deadly weapon—his gun. Id.
At the time of the trial, Washington State imposed a minimum sentence of three to nine months for a second-degree assault. Amicus Brief of Criminal Justice Legal Foundation at 2. The sentence increases by an additional year if the defendant was armed with a “deadly weapon” during the assault, and by three years if he was armed with a “firearm.” Id.
During the prosecution’s arguments to the jury at trial, the only deadly weapon mentioned was a firearm. Brief for Petitioner at 7. But when the court instructed the jury to return a special verdict on a sentencing enhancement, the court omitted any references to a firearm and instead asked only whether Recuenco was armed with a “deadly weapon” during the assault. Id. After the jury returned its special verdict, the trial judge—independent of the jury—examined the evidence in the case and decided that Recuenco was armed with a firearm. Id. Accordingly, the court sentenced him using the three-year enhancement for assault with a firearm. Id.
Recuenco appealed the court’s decision, arguing that the trial court erred in imposing the three-year firearms enhancement because the jury instruction referred only to the use of a deadly weapon. Id. at 6. The Washington Court of Appeals rejected Recuenco's argument, reasoning that any error in the form of the incomplete jury instruction “was harmless because it is clear beyond a reasonable doubt that the jury’s verdict was not affected by the error.” Id. at 7.
The Washington Supreme Court reversed the appellate court’s decision. Instead of finding harmless error in the form of the jury instruction, the court held that under Blakely v. Washington, 542 U.S. 296 (2004), the three-year sentencing enhancement must be reversed because, in finding that Recuenco used a firearm, the trial court judge erred in deciding an issue reserved for the jury. Brief for Petitioner at 7. Under this reasoning, it is irrelevant that the error was harmless. Id. The State of Washington then petitioned the United States Supreme Court to review the decision.
In Washington v. Recuenco, No. 05-83 (U.S. 2005), the State of Washington seeks to reverse the Washington Supreme Court's decision that vacated Recuenco's 39-month sentence for assault, which includes a three-year enhancement for being armed with a firearm during the incident. The Washington Supreme Court vacated the trial judge's sentence because the jury technically never found that Recuenco was armed with a gun — the jury only found that Recuenco was armed with a "deadly weapon," which carries a lesser one-year enhancement. State v. Recuenco, 154 Wash.2d 156 (Wash. 2004). However, the fact that Recuenco was armed with a gun during the assault is undisputed. The problem was that the special instructions submitted to the jury omitted the question of whether a firearm was involved, thereby preventing them from formally making the finding. Brief for Petitioner at 6.
The Washington Court of Appeals upheld the trial judge's decision, finding that the sentence enhancement, in light of the omission in the jury instructions, was harmless error. State v. Recuenco, 117 Wash.App. 1079 (2003). However, the Washington Supreme Court disagreed, finding that the trial judge committed structural error and vacated Recuenco's sentence. Recuenco, 154 Wash.2d 156. Structural error, in contrast with harmless error, is a defect that affects the entire framework of a trial and unavoidably taints the verdict, therefore automatically voiding the outcome. See Sullivan v. Louisiana, 508 U.S. 275 (1993); Brief for Petitioner at 20. The Washington Supreme Court based its decision on Blakely v. Washington, 542 U.S. 296 (2004), which held that judges may not increase sentences based on facts not returned by the jury. However, an earlier Supreme Court case, Neder v. U.S., 527 U.S. 1 (1999), seemingly conflicts with Blakely since it held that jury instructions having a single element missing or defined incorrectly could be harmless if — beyond a reasonable doubt — the defect would not have altered the verdict. The Washington Court attempted to resolve the conflict between Blakely, 542 U.S. 296, and Neder, 527 U.S. at 1, by drawing a distinction between verdicts and sentencing enhancement — finding that harmless error was possible as to the former but not the latter. Brief for Petitioner at 7.
This case centers on Recuenco's Sixth Amendment right to a trial by jury, which according to a recent Supreme Court decision, prevents judges from imposing increased sentences based on facts not found by the jury. See Blakely, 542 U.S. at 296. The immediate question is whether the trial judge's imposition of a sentencing enhancement is harmless error as in Neder, 527 U.S. at 1, or instead is a structural error as in Sullivan, 508 U.S. at 275. See Steven Sanders, Is Washington v. Recuenco a Big Fat Dud?, at 1 (Feb. 17 2006). The former would imply that the resulting sentence could be upheld if a reviewing court determines that the judge's finding of fact was indeed harmless error, but the latter would require the court to automatically vacate the sentence.
The State of Washington bases its argument on the notion that substantive justice should prevail over a minor defect, stressing that the fact that Recuenco carried a gun is undisputed and that only technical defects in the jury instructions prevented them from finding this fact. Brief for Petitioner at 1. The State of Washington argues that the trial court judge committed harmless error by imposing a sentencing enhancement, since under Neder, even a verdict can be upheld in spite of technically deficient jury findings. Neder, 527 U.S. at 1. In drawing this analogy, the State of Washington argues that there is no intuitive justification for a stricter standard for a sentencing enhancement than for a verdict. Brief for Petitioner at 9–10.
At the opposite end, Recuenco first attempts a creative argument based on a legal technicality. He notes a flaw in the Washington criminal procedure statutes that prevented the prosecutor from submitting to the jury the question of whether Recuenco used a firearm. Brief for Respondent at 6–7. Therefore, under the rule that an error is only harmless if it did not contribute to the verdict, the trial judge's finding of fact that Recuenco used a firearm — the error at issue here — by definition cannot be found to be harmless since it was the sole basis of the three-year sentencing enhancement. See Id.
Failing this argument, Recuenco also attacks the State of Washington's attempts to analogize this case to Neder, 527 U.S. at 1, on the premise that allowing a judge to find facts to convict him on a greater offense violates his Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial. Recuenco distinguishes Neder by arguing that Neder only stood for the principle that a verdict on a charged offense can be upheld in spite of defective jury instructions, whereas in this case, the trial judge's sentencing enhancement amounted to a directed verdict by the trial judge on a separate greater offense not charged by the prosecutor. Brief for Respondent at 6–7.
Recuenco also brings up practical reasons for not allowing judges to impose sentencing enhancements based on facts not returned by the jury. See Brief for Respondent at 38. Recuenco notes that reviewing courts would have to delve into facts of cases in order to decide whether a judge's decision to impose enhancements under the "harmless error” doctrine can be supported by the record. See Id. Recuenco further points out that allowing judges to find facts would motive defense lawyers to contest anything in evidence that may be used at the trial or by a reviewing judge to upgrade a sentence. See Id.
This case presents the tension between providing criminal defendants with a fair trial while avoiding needless retrials of harmless errors resulting from incomplete jury instructions.
A decision in favor of Recuenco threatens to burden the criminal dockets of numerous states by increasing the number of retrials. Amicus Brief of Alaska et al. at 23. At least twenty-six states currently apply the harmless error doctrine to jury instructions that are erroneous as a result of instructional omissions or misdescriptions. Id. at 24. If the Washington Supreme Court’s decision is affirmed, these twenty-six states cannot rely as frequently on a finding of harmless error to avoid retrying a case. The practical implication of this outcome is that states may need to funnel more resources to retry cases that presented little to no risk of error that was prejudicial to defendants.
On the other hand, the American Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers argues that a decision in favor of Recuenco would only reduce the length of criminal trials, as compared to a decision in favor of the State of Washington. Amicus Brief of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers at 22. If the State of Washington prevails in this case, criminal defendants will remain exposed to increased sentences based on facts that are not elements of the charged offense. Id. This will lead criminal defense attorneys to vigorously dispute every fact that a judge could use to increase the sentence. Id. As a result, juries will likely sit through lengthy presentations of evidence having nothing to do with the issues they will decide. Id.
Criminal defendants, perhaps, have the most to lose from a decision favoring the State of Washington. Recuenco views the trial court’s enhancement of his sentence not as simply an error of instructional omissions, but as the functional equivalent of receiving an offense greater than one the jury imposed. Brief for Respondent at 20. Under this scenario, therefore, criminal defendants face an increased risk of receiving a judge-imposed sentence independent of the jurors’ judgment and contrary to the defendant’s interests. Id. at 21.
In Recuenco, the Supreme Court will decide whether sentencing enhancements imposed based on facts not found by a jury can constitute harmless error or are categorically void as structural error. In doing so, the Court will resolve the tension between Blakely, 542 U.S. at 296, and Neder, 527 U.S. at 1 — the former holding that judges cannot increase sentences based on facts not found by the jury, and the latter holding that defective jury instructions can be harmless error. This case frames the issue cleanly for the Court since there is no dispute that Recuenco carried a gun and that the trial judge attempted to correct a purely technical error. See Sanders, Is Washington v. Recuenco a Big Fat Dud?, at 1. In making its decision, the Court must weigh the need for procedural guarantees against the interests of efficiency and substantive justice — a decision in the State of Washington's favor will push back the bounds of the Sixth Amendment guarantee, but may avoid needless retrials due to technical defects in jury instructions.
Written by: Euwyn Poon & Ya-Wei Li