The Supreme Court’s Jury Duty – Trial By Jury

Deliberating the right to trial by jury for some judge-sentenced cases

Over the years, many have received the dreaded summons in the mail: “you have jury duty.”

Trial by Jury in a possession of child pornography case

It may seem an inconvenience, but wouldn’t you want your case tried before a jury of twelve peers rather than one judge, especially if facing jail time? Isn’t that your constitutional right?

In most cases, yes, but in some circumstances such as when released offenders violate the terms of their release, a single judge can determine sentencing.

Supreme Court: U.S. v. Haymond

The question of the right to trial by jury was recently raised in front of the Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments in the case of U.S. v. Haymond.

In Haymond’s initial case, he spent 38 months in prison for possession of child pornography and was placed on ten years of supervised release.

But, just two years into this release, Haymond’s home was searched. Officers confiscated a cell phone and four computers from the apartment. A forensic examination was conducted, and the officers discovered websites with titles known for sexually explicit materials.  They also discovered images that the FBI identified as child pornography, downloaded from a peer-to-peer (or P2P) file sharing system.

As a result of violating his supervised release, Haymond went before a judge and was sentenced to five years of reincarceration.

Haymond served just 38 months in prison when tried by a jury. Now he is sentenced to an additional five years of reincarceration by a judge.

Federal Statute 18 U.S.C §3583(k) Reexamined

It is well established that when offenders have completed their prison term, they are subject to the terms of supervised release. If violated, the acts could result in the imposition of additional, more onerous reporting requirements, a longer period of supervision, or even the imposition of additional prison time. That is standard practice in most state and federal courts.

The difference is the federal statute at issue in this particular case, 18 U.S.C. §3583(k), requires a five-year mandatory minimum incarceration period.

In other words, judges are required to sentence offenders additional prison time–from five years to life–if they violate the terms of their release.

A few big issues are now being considered. First, this congressional statute allows for a significantly longer new sentence of incarceration, which goes well beyond what the first conviction allowed. Second, the standard of proof is lowered significantly. Relying only on “a preponderence of the evidence” for the new accusations, the court does not need the new accusations to rise to the level of “beyond a reasonable doubt” requirement typically required in criminal cases. Because the bar is much lower, it is common that the bare requirements are easily met. Finally, there is no right to a jury (the panel of peers who weigh the evidence to determine guilt or innocence). This feels like a violation of the fundamental fairness owed to anyone facing the termination of their freedom.

Longer Prison Terms without the Right to a Jury?

The district court decision and the statute have raised joint concern between two Supreme Court Justices who typically have opposite viewpoints. In this case, the Court expressed grave reservations about the statute. In their opinions, it is clear justices are uncomfortable with the idea of criminal defendants being sentenced to longer prison terms without their right to a jury. Gorsuch stated, “I just don’t understand why the government resists the involvement of a jury of a man’s or woman’s peers.”

The Haymond case illustrates that the Supreme Court has concerns when a criminal defendant’s right to trial by jury is stripped away by Congress. This important case may give rise to other similar criminal cases in the future, such as in drug cases, where sentences may be increased solely at the finding of a judge, not a jury. The Haymond case shows that even in the most controversial cases, the sacred right to a trial by jury is a fundamental consideration in the fair adjudication of justice.

Trial by Jury– “The Heart and Lungs of Liberty”

The right to a trial by jury dates back 800 years to the Magna Carta. Its principles are established in the Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution. Founding father and second president John Adams once said that a trial by jury and representative government are “the heart and lungs of liberty.” It is clear this idea is a foundational principle of our criminal justice system and has long held prominence in the fair adjudication of the law.

Even conservative Justice Antonin Scalia cheekily said, “before depriving a man of his liberty, the state should suffer the modest inconvenience of submitting the accusations to twelve of his neighbors than a lone state employee.”

If you have legal questions, especially in regards to criminal issues arising from traffic stops or drug charges, contact Columbus, Ohio criminal defense lawyer Joe Edwards at 614-309-0243.  Attorney Edwards has over 25 years of experience representing individuals at the state and federal levels.

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