Even Acquittals Can Increase Sentences Supreme Court Says Courts May Use Unproven Charges In Sentencing

Criminals who are convicted in federal court may have their sentences increased based on other charges of which they were acquitted, the Supreme Court said Monday.

Sentencing judges have “broad discretion” to take into account information about a defendant’s background and character, the justices said. This includes charges that were not proven.

Moreover, an “acquittal on criminal charges does not prove that the defendant is innocent,” the high court said on a 7-2 vote. “It merely proves the existence of a reasonable doubt.”

Monday’s ruling, in United States vs. Watts, means that a defendant who is convicted on one count and acquitted on a half dozen others could be sentenced as if he were convicted on all the charges.

The decision reverses the rule in Washington and the other West Coast states, where conduct that results in an acquittal cannot be used against a defendant.

“We would pervert our system of justice,” said the U.S. 9th Circuit of Appeals in 1991, “if we allowed a defendant to suffer punishment for a criminal charge for which he was acquitted.”

The 9th Circuit, based in San Francisco, stood alone among the 12 regional appeals court in adopting that rule.

In an appeal filed in May, Clinton administration lawyers complained that the 9th Circuit was ignoring the long-standing practice elsewhere. Without even hearing arguments in the case, the Supreme Court granted the appeal and overturned the 9th Circuit’s policy.

“We hold that a jury’s verdict of acquittal does not prevent the sentencing (judge) from considering conduct underlying the acquitted charge, so long as that conduct has been proved by a preponderance of the evidence,” the court said in a 10-page unsigned opinion.

In dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens called it a “perverse result.” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy dissented separately, saying the question is worthy of fuller consideration by the court.

The issue arises often in federal prosecutions, whether involving drugs, bank fraud or pornography, where defendants are indicted on multiple counts. Quite often, they are convicted on some counts and acquitted on others.

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