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?

  • larry rider

    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.

  • Absolutely pent subject matter, Really enjoyed reading through .

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