Supreme Court Shocks With Blakely Decision

By: Mark Eiglarsh


Ralph Blakely pled guilty to kidnapping. The facts that he admitted during his plea included abducting his estranged wife, binding her with duct tape and forcing her at knifepoint into a wooden box in the bed of his pickup truck. In the process, he implored her to dismiss the divorce suit and related trust proceedings. Blakely's admissions during the plea supported a maximum sentence of no more then 53 months in prison. The judge in this case, using his authority under state guidelines, imposed a 90 month sentence. The court made a factual finding that the kidnapping was committed with "deliberate cruelty." That factual finding, which was a statutorily enumerated ground for departing from the standard range, was never put before Blakely's jury. He objected to the imposition of the increased sentence. The decision made by the U.S. Supreme Court on June 24, 2004 set off shock waves throughout the country.


A very unlikely alliance of Justices, Scalia, Stevens, Souter, Thomas and Ginsberg, joined to hold that the sentence enhancement was invalid because the facts supporting the enhancement were "neither admitted by the petitioner nor found by the jury." Blakely v. Washington, 2004 WL 1402697. Relying on its decision in Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466 (2000), the bitterly divided court ruled, "The judge in this case could not have imposed the exceptional 90 month sentence solely on the basis of the facts admitted in the guilty plea. Justice Scalia, writing for the majority, further explained that "every defendant has the right to insist that the prosecutor prove to a jury all facts legally essential to the punishment." The State argued that the 90 month sentence was lawful because it was still below the 10 year maximum for felonies in the same category. However, Scalia rejected that argument, finding "Our precedents make clear that the 'statutory maximum' for Apprendi purposes is the maximum sentence a judge may impose solely on the basis of the facts reflected in the jury verdict or admitted by the defendant." The court reasoned that when the judge inflicts punishment that the jury's verdict or plea does not allow, the judge exceeds his proper authority.

Ruling's Potential Impact

In their ruling, the court specifically noted that their decision doesn't make any opinion regarding the constitutionality of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. However, in their dissent, Justices O'Connor, Rehnquist, Kennedy and Breyer, predicted that the ruling does threaten the Guidelines. In fact, immediately upon receiving the ruling, many in the criminal justice arena, including Federal Judges, immediately concluded that Blakely had potentially catastrophic implications on Federal sentencing practices, rendering them unconstitutional. That view was shared by Judge Goodwin in U.S. v. Shamblin, Crim. No 2:03-00217 (S.D.W.Va. June 30, 2004), who ruled that a defendant who was involved in a significant drug operation could have received 20 years before Blakely, could only now only be sentenced to a term of 12 months. In the federal system, judges are required to make a number of factual findings after a guilty plea and/or a jury finding of guilt. For example, in a case involving a drug conspiracy, a judge must determine what role the defendant played. The defendant receives a more severe penalty if the court concludes that he/she was a manager or organizer as opposed to a simple "mule." In a fraud case, the court frequently determines, as a matter of fact, how much fraud was involved. Because under the current guidelines, the judge, not the jury, is the one making those significant factual findings, then, applying the Blakely analysis, the current system may improperly infringe on the right to a jury as guaranteed by the constitution.


It would appear that this ruling is contrary to the practice in many state courts and in every federal court around the United States. It appears that justices are no longer permitted to consider evidence outside the jury's verdict or the plea agreement when imposing sentences. Without question, the Blakely decision will continue to have an enormous impact on the way courts decide defendant's sentences.

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