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The Supreme Court further restricted federal judges’ sentencing powers Monday, ruling that police reports and other unproven evidence cannot be used to tack on prison time. The 5-3 decision in a Massachusetts case puts into doubt judicial fact-finding involving a defendant’s prior convictions when boosting sentences. That was the last exception to recent Supreme Court rulings banning enhanced sentences based on factors that had not come before a jury during trial. Most states rely on some sort of judicial fact-finding for prior convictions in their sentencing systems. Douglas Berman, a sentencing expert at Ohio State University’s law school, said the ruling, coming on the heels of January’s decision that found federal sentencing guidelines unconstitutional, adds more confusion. The Supreme Court ruled Jan. 12 that the mandatory federal guidelines violated a defendant’s Sixth Amendment right because the guidelines required judges to make factual decisions that affect prison time, such as the amount of drugs involved in a crime or amount of money involved in fraud. “I think nearly every state has some kind of three-strikes law or recidivist sentencing provisions that rely on some judicial finding of prior conviction facts,” Berman said. “It’s inevitable we will have lots of litigation going forward.” Justice David H. Souter, writing for a four-justice plurality, said only a plea agreement, a charging document to which a defendant pleads guilty, an admission by a defendant and similarly reliable facts may be used to stiffen sentences. “The Sixth and 14th Amendments guarantee a jury standing between a defendant and the power of the state, and they guarantee a jury’s finding of any disputed fact essential to increase the ceiling of a potential sentence,” he wrote. Unproven evidence such as police reports are “too far removed from the conclusive significance of a prior judicial record” to allow, Souter said. He was joined by Justices John Paul Stevens, Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. In a concurring opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas said the Court should have eliminated the “prior conviction” exception outright because it violates an individual’s right to be tried and sentenced on factors that are determined “beyond a reasonable doubt” by a jury. The case involved Reginald Shepard, who pleaded guilty to gun possession, a conviction that carried a sentence of four years in prison. At sentencing, the federal government asked that Shepard be sentenced to 15 years, as called for under a federal “career criminal” law, based on three prior convictions for burglary. At issue was whether the burglaries to which Shepard pleaded guilty were violent felonies involving breaking and entering into a “building,” as opposed to a vehicle or vessel, which are not considered violent under federal law. The 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled yes, relying on police reports provided by the prosecution. In a dissent, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor argued that the case nonsensically turned on whether Shepard committed burglary in a “building,” a question that is answered with “substantial documentation and without any evidence to the contrary.” O’Connor was joined in her dissent by Justices Anthony Kennedy and Stephen G. Breyer. “The court today adopts a rule that is not compelled by statute or by this court’s precedent, that makes little sense as a practical matter, and that will substantially frustrate Congress’ scheme for punishing repeat violent offenders who violate federal gun laws,” she wrote. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist did not participate in consideration of the case, which was heard in November while he was being treated for thyroid cancer. The case is Shepard v. U.S. 03-9168. Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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