Lewis v. United States (95-6465), 518 U.S 322 (1996).
[ O'Connor ]
[ Kennedy ]
[ Stevens ]
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No. 95-6465


on writ of certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the second circuit

[June 24, 1996]

Justice Kennedy , with whom Justice Breyer joins, The defendants in Codispoti and Taylor had been convicted of criminal contempt without juries in States where the legislatures had not set a maximum penalty for the crime. Taylor was convicted of nine separate contempts and sentenced to six months in prison. The Court held he was not entitled to a jury trial. Since the total sentence was only six months' imprisonment, the "eight contempts, whether considered singly or collectively, thus constituted petty offenses, and trial by jury was not required." Taylor v. Hayes, supra, at 496. Codispoti, by contrast, was convicted of seven contempts, and he was sentenced to six terms of six months' imprisonment and one term of three months' imprisonment, each to run consecutively--a total of 39 months. We held he was entitled to a trial by jury because his aggregate sentence exceeded six months. In Codispoti, Pennsylvania made the same argument the United States makes today. It said no jury trial is required if the maximum punishment for each offense does not exceed six months in prison. We rejected the claim, saying:

"Here the contempts . . . were tried seriatim in one proceeding, and the trial judge not only imposed a separate sentence for each contempt but also determined that the individual sentences were to run consecutively rather than concurrently, a ruling which necessarily extended the prison term to be served beyond that allowable for a petty criminal offense. As a result of this single proceeding, Codispoti was sentenced to three years and three months for his seven contemptuous acts. . . . In terms of the sentence imposed, which was obviously several times more than six months, [Codispoti] was tried for what was equivalent to a serious offense and was entitled to a jury trial.

"We find unavailing respondent's contrary argument that [Codispoti's] contempts were separate offenses and that, because no more than a six months' sentence was imposed for any single offense, each contempt was necessarily a petty offense triable without a jury. Notwithstanding respondent's characterization of the proceeding, the salient fact remains that the contempts arose from a single trial, were charged by a single judge, and were tried in a single proceeding. The individual sentences imposed were then aggregated, one sentence taking account of the others and not beginning until the immediately preceding sentence had expired." Codispoti v. Pennsylvania, supra, at 516-517.

The reasons the Court offers to distinguish these cases are not convincing. The Court first suggests Codispoti's holding turned on the absence of a statutory maximum sentence for criminal contempt. Ante, at 6. The absence of a statutory maximum sentence, however, has nothing whatever to do with whether a court must aggregate the penalties that are in fact imposed for each crime. Indeed, we know the open ended penalty to which Codispoti was subject was not the reason he was entitled a jury trial because Taylor, decided the same day, held that a defendant who was subject to the same kind of open ended sentencing was not entitled to trial by jury because the sentence he received did not in fact exceed six months. Taken together, Codispoti and Taylor stand for the proposition the Court now rejects: Sentences for petty offenses must be aggregated in determining whether a defendant is entitled to a jury trial. Cf. State v. McCarroll, 337 So. 2d 475, 480 (La. 1976) (concluding Codispoti compelled it to overrule Monroe v. Wilhite, 233 So. 2d 535 (La.), cert. denied, 400 U.S. 910 (1970), which had held the Sixth Amendment did not require aggregation of penalties for petty offenses to determine whether a defendant is entitled to a jury trial).

The Court next suggests Codispoti's holding was based on "the special concerns raised by the criminal contempt context." Ante, at 6-7. The Codispoti Court was indeed cognizant of the need "to maintain order in the courtroom and the integrity of the trial process," 418 U. S., at 513, and so approved summary conviction and sentencing for criminal contempt, "where the necessity of circumstances warrants," id., at 514. The Court made clear that under those circumstances, a judge may sentence a defendant to more than six months' imprisonment for more than one contempt without empaneling a jury. Id., at 514-515. The Court went on to hold, however, that when the judge postpones the contempt trial until after the immediate proceedings have concluded, the "ordinary rudiments of due process" apply. Id., at 515. The "ordinary" rule required aggregation of penalties, and because Codispoti's aggregated penalties exceeded six months' imprisonment, entitled him to a jury trial.

In authorizing retroactive consideration of the punishment a defendant receives, the holdings of Codispoti and Taylor must not be confused with the line of cases entitling a defendant to a jury trial if he is charged with a crime punishable by more than six months' imprisonment, regardless of the sentence he in fact receives. The two lines of cases are consistent. Crimes punishable by sentences of more than six months are deemed by the community's social and ethical judgments to be serious. See District of Columbia v. Clawans, 300 U.S. 617, 628 (1937). Opprobrium attaches to conviction of those crimes regardless of the length of the actual sentence imposed, and the stigma itself is enough to entitle the defendant to a jury. See J. Proffatt, Trial by Jury 149 (1877) (jury trial cannot be denied to a defendant subject to "punishment which would render him infamous . . . [or] affix to him the ignominy of a criminal"). This rationale does not entitle a defendant to trial by jury if he is charged only with petty offenses; even if they could result in a long sentence when taken together, convictions for petty offenses do not carry the same stigma as convictions for serious crimes.

The imposition of stigma, however, is not the only or even the primary consequence a jury trial serves to constrain. As Codispoti recognizes, and as ought to be evident, the Sixth Amendment also serves the different and more practical purpose of preventing a court from effecting a most serious deprivation of liberty--ordering a defendant to prison for a substantial period of time--without the Government's persuading a jury he belongs there. A deprivation of liberty so significant may be exacted if a defendant faces punishment for a series of crimes, each of which can be punished by no more than six months' imprisonment. The stakes for a defendant may then amount in the aggregate to many years in prison, in which case he must be entitled to interpose a jury between himself and the Government. If the trial court rules at the outset that no more than six months' imprisonment will be imposed for the combined petty offenses, however, the liberty the jury serves to protect will not be endangered, and there is no corresponding right to jury trial.

Although Codispoti and Taylor are binding precedents, my conclusion rests also on a more fundamental point, one the Court refuses to confront: The primary purpose of the jury in our legal system is to stand between the accused and the powers of the State. Among the most ominous of those is the power to imprison. Blackstone expressed this principle when he described the right to trial by jury as a "strong . . . barrier . . . between the liberties of the people and the prerogative of the crown." 4 W. Blackstone, Commentaries *349-*350. See also W. Forsythia, History of Trial by Jury 426 (1852) ("[I]t would be difficult to conceive a better security than this right affords against any exercise of arbitrary violence on the part of the crown or a government acting in the name of the crown. No matter how ardent may be its wish to destroy or crush an obnoxious opponent, there can be no real danger from its menaces or acts so long as the party attacked can take refuge in a jury fairly and indifferently chosen"). In more recent times we have said the right to jury trial "reflect[s] a profound judgment about the way in which law should be enforced and justice administered." Duncan v. Louisiana, 391 U. S., at 155. Providing a defendant with the right to be tried by a jury gives "him an inestimable safeguard against the corrupt or overzealous prosecutor and against the compliant, biased, or eccentric judge." Id., at 156. These considerations all are present when a judge in a single case sends a defendant to prison for years, whether the sentence is the result of one serious offense or several petty offenses.

On the Court's view of the case, however, there is no limit to the length of the sentence a judge can impose on a defendant without entitling him to a jury, so long as the prosecutor carves up the charges into segments punishable by no more than six months apiece. Prosecutors have broad discretion in framing charges, see Ball v. United States, 470 U.S. 856, 859 (1985), for criminal conduct often does not arrange itself in neat categories. In many cases, a prosecutor can choose to charge a defendant with multiple petty offenses rather than a single serious offense, and so prevent him under today's holding from obtaining a trial by jury while still obtaining the same punishment. Cf. People v. Estevez, 163 Misc. 2d 839, 847, 622 N. Y. S. 2d 870, 876 (Crim. Ct. 1995) ("The People cannot have it both ways. They cannot in good faith seek consolidation of several B misdemeanors, which have been reduced from Class A misdemeanors, and then after conviction of more than two offenses seek consecutive sentences which would expose the defendant to over six months' imprisonment while at the same time deny the defendant the right to jury trial").

The Court does not aid its position when it notes, with seeming approval, the Government's troubling suggestion that a committed prosecutor could evade the rule here proposed by bringing a series of prosecutions in separate proceedings, each for an offense punishable by no more than six months in prison. Ante, at 8. Were a prosecutor to take so serious a view of a defendant's conduct as to justify the burden of separate prosecutions, I should think the case an urgent example of when a jury is most needed if the offenses are consolidated. And if a defendant is subject to repeated bench trials because of a prosecutor's scheme to confine him in jail for years without benefit of a jury trial, at least he will be provided certain safeguards as a result. The prosecution's witnesses, and its theory of the case, will be tested more than once; the defendant will have repeated opportunities to convince the judge, or more than one judge, on the merits; and quite apart from questions of included offenses, the Government may be barred by collateral estoppel if a fact is found in favor of the defendant and is dispositive in later trials, see Ashe v. Swenson, 397 U.S. 436 (1970). Finally, the prosecutor will have to justify, at least to the voters, this peculiar exercise of discretion. In short, if a prosecutor seeks to achieve a result forbidden in one trial by the expedient of pursuing many, the process itself will constrain the prosecutor and protect the defendant in important ways. The Court's holding, of course, makes it easier rather than more difficult for a government to evade the constraints of the Sixth Amendment when it seeks to lock up a defendant for a long time.

The significance of the Court's decision quite transcends the peculations of Ray Lewis, the petitioner here, who twice filched from the mails. The decision affects more than repeat violators of traffic laws, persons accused of public drunkenness, persons who persist in breaches of the peace, and the wide range of eccentrics capable of disturbing the quiet enjoyment of life by others. Just as alarming is the threat the Court's holding poses to millions of persons in agriculture, manufacturing, and trade who must comply with minute administrative regulations, many of them carrying a jail term of six months or less. Violations of these sorts of rules often involve repeated, discrete acts which can result in potential liability of years of imprisonment. See, e.g., 16 U.S.C. § 707 (violation of migratory bird treaties, laws, and regulations); 29 U.S.C. § 216 (penalties under Fair Labor Standards Act); 36 CFR § 1.3 (1995) (violation of National Park Service regulations); id., §261.1b (violation of Forest Service prohibitions); id., §327.25 (violation of Army Corps of Engineers water resource development project regulations); 43 CFR § 8351.1-1(b) (1995) (violation of Bureau of Land management regulations under National Trails System Act of 1968). Still, under the Court's holding it makes no difference whether a defendant is sentenced to a year in prison or for that matter to 20 years: As long as no single violation charged is punishable by more than six months, the defendant has no right to a jury.

The petitioner errs in the opposite direction. He argues a defendant is entitled to a jury trial whenever the penalties for the crimes charged combine to exceed six months' imprisonment, even if the trial judge rules that no more than six months' imprisonment will be imposed. We rejected this position in Taylor, however, and rightly so. A defendant charged with multiple petty offenses does not face the societal disapprobation attaching to conviction of a serious crime, and, so long as the trial judge rules at the outset that no more than six months' imprisonment will be imposed, the defendant does not face a serious deprivation of liberty. A judge who so rules is not withdrawing from a defendant a constitutional right to which he is entitled, as petitioner claims; the defendant is not entitled to the right to begin with if there is no potential for more than six months' imprisonment. The judge's statement has no independent force but only clarifies what would have been the law in its absence. Codispoti holds that a judge cannot impose a sentence exceeding six months' imprisonment for multiple petty offenses without conducting a jury trial, regardless of whether the judge announces that fact from bench.

Amici in support of petitioner say it is inappropriate for judges to make these kinds of sentencing decisions before trial. The Court approved just this practice, however, in Scott v. Illinois, 440 U.S. 367 (1979), holding the Sixth Amendment does not require a judge to appoint counsel for a criminal defendant in a misdemeanor case if the judge will not sentence the defendant to any jail time. So too, Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 58(a)(2) authorizes district courts not to apply the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure in petty offense prosecutions for which no sentence of imprisonment will be imposed. The rules contemplate the determination being made before trial. Fed. Rule Crim. Proc. 58(a)(3).

Petitioner's proposal would impose an enormous burden on an already beleaguered criminal justice system by increasing to a dramatic extent the number of required jury trials. There are thousands of instances where minor offenses are tried before a judge, and we would err on the other side of sensible interpretation were we to hold that combining petty offenses in a single proceeding mandates a jury trial even when all possibility for a sentence longer than six months has been foreclosed.

* * *

When a defendant's liberty is put at great risk in a trial, he is entitled to have the trial conducted to a jury. This principle lies at the heart of the Sixth Amendment. The Court does grave injury to the Amendment by allowing a defendant to suffer a prison term of any length after a single trial before a single judge and without the protection of a jury. I join only the Court's judgment.