|Lewis v. United States (95-6465), 518 U.S 322 (1996). |
[ O'Connor ]
[ Kennedy ]
[ Stevens ]
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 Lumber Co., 200 U.S. 321, 337.
SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES
LEWIS v. UNITED
certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the second circuit
Petitioner was charged with two counts of obstructing the mail, each charge carrying a maximum authorized prison sentence of six months. He requested a jury, but the magistrate judge ordered a bench trial, explaining that because she would not sentence him to more than six months' imprisonment, he was not entitled to a jury trial. The District Court affirmed. In affirming, the Court of Appeals noted that the Sixth Amendment jury trial right pertains only to those offenses for which the legislature has authorized a maximum penalty of over six months' imprisonment, and that because each offense charged here was petty in character, the fact that petitioner was facing more than six months' imprisonment in the aggregate did not entitle him to a jury trial. The court explained in dictum that because the offense's characterization as petty or serious determined the right to a jury trial, not the sentence faced, a trial judge's self imposed limitation on sentencing could not deprive a defendant of that right.
1. A defendant who is prosecuted in a single proceeding for multiple petty offenses does not have a Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial where the aggregate prison term authorized for the offenses exceeds six months. The right to a jury trial is reserved for defendants accused of serious offenses and does not extend to petty offenses. Duncan v. Louisiana, 391 U.S. 145, 159. The most relevant criterion with which to assess the seriousness of an offense is the legislature's judgment of the offense's character, primarily as expressed in the maximum authorized prison term. An offense carrying a maximum term of six months or less is presumed petty, unless the legislature has authorized additional statutory penalties so severe as to indicate that it considered the offense serious. E.g., Blanton v. North Las Vegas, 489 U.S. 538, 543. Here, by setting the maximum prison term at six months, Congress categorized the offense of obstructing the mail as petty. The fact that petitioner was charged with two counts of a petty offense, and therefore faced an aggregate potential prison term greater than six months, does not change Congress' judgment of the particular offense's gravity, nor does it transform the petty offense into a serious one, to which the jury trial right would apply. Codispoti v. Pennsylvania, 418 U.S. 506, 511, and Taylor v. Hayes, 418 U.S. 488, distinguished. Pp. 3-8.
2. Because petitioner is not entitled to a jury trial, the Court does not reach the question whether a judge's self imposed limitation on sentencing may affect the jury trial right. P. 8.
O'Connor, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and Scalia, Souter, and Thomas, JJ., joined. Kennedy, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which Breyer, J., joined. Stevens, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which Ginsburg, J., joined.