Why Cunningham v. California is important (and correctly decided)

There’s been quite a stir in the blogosphere over the Supreme Court decision in Cunningham v. California. Much of it has lamented the fact that the convicted defendant’s sentence was lowered as a result of the decision, without much thought about the principles involved.

Actually, it’s quite simple really. The Supreme Court invalidated that part of California’s sentencing that allowed a judge to impose a higher sentence than the jury verdict authorized.

Let’s take a look at it from the perspective of the laws in Texas on Assault. The three main categories of assault in Texas are: Class C Assault – offensive touch, Class A Assault –bodily injury, and Aggravated Assault – serious bodily injury or deadly weapon.

These three range from a traffic ticket level offense, punished by no jail but up to $500, to a second degree felony, punished by up to 20 years in prison. Obviously, that makes quite a difference.

Let’s say you were charged with assault, because someone filed a complaint against you for pinching them, and they found that offensive. That’s a Class C.

You want to dispute the charges, and you go to jury trial and lose – the jury finds you guilty, of Class C offensive touch. Now, while that’s bad enough, here’s what California’s scheme effectively did before it was struck down.

It allowed the judge then to make a finding that there was either serious bodily injury involved, or that you used or displayed a deadly weapon, even though neither of these issues was submitted to the jury. The judge, after making the finding, elevates your offense to a second degree felony and sentences you to the 20 year maximum for that charge. 

Or 5 years. Or anything within the 2-20 year and up to $10,000 range. (This isn’t the case in Texas – I’m just using this as an example.)

California v. Cunningham simply said that if there were facts to be decided that increased a defendant’s punishment (other than prior convictions), that those facts had to be admitted by the defendant, or submitted to a jury and proven by the prosecution beyond a reasonable doubt.

When you take a look at it from the proper perspective, it makes perfect sense. After all, isn’t that what trial by jury is supposed to mean in the first place?

Trackbacks (0) Links to blogs that reference this article Trackback URL
http://blog.austindefense.com/admin/trackback/21836
Comments (2) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
larry rider - February 28, 2007 5:27 PM

The court made a step in the right direction but what does Cunningham mean for states that allow judges alone to choose between a life sentence with the possibility of parole after serving 10 years and a life sentence without any possibility of parole? Life is life but a life without parole cannot be imposed without some additional findings by the court.

gamefly commercial december 2011 - March 11, 2012 8:52 AM

Absolutely pent subject matter, Really enjoyed reading through .

Post A Comment / Question Use this form to add a comment to this entry.







Remember personal info?