Judges may lengthen the sentences of convicted defendants based on charges of which they were acquitted, the Supreme Court ruled Monday.
By a 7-2 vote in cases from California and Hawaii, the justices reinstated the sentences of two drug dealers.In an unsigned decision, the nation's highest court said that neither federal law nor the Constitution's protection against double jeopardy bars judges from considering conduct of which defendants were acquitted.
Although both cases involved federal prosecutions, the court's discussion of constitutional law would apply to state prosecutions as well.
In other decisions Monday, the court:
- Turned away a key procedural dispute in Dow Corning Corp.'s efforts to deal with the tens of thousands of health claims against it by women who used its silicone breast implants. The justices let stand a federal appeals court ruling that allowed Dow Corning to transfer breast-implant lawsuits from around the nation to a federal bankruptcy court in Michigan.
- Refused to let New York require some prison inmates seeking extra privileges to attend Alcoholics Anonymous programs that ask them to believe in some higher power such as God. The justices turned down state prison officials' argument that the program is not an unlawful government endorsement of religion.
- Rejected the Republican Party's free-speech challenge to federal rules requiring political committees to encourage greater disclosure by campaign contributors.
In the prison sentences case, the justices noted that an acquittal "does not prove that the defendant is innocent; it merely proves the existence of a reasonable doubt as to his guilt."
"We therefore hold that a jury's verdict of acquittal does not prevent the sentencing court from considering conduct underlying the acquitted charge, so long as that conduct has been proved by a preponderance of the evidence," Monday's decision said.
In dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens said the decision brings about a "perverse result."
"The notion that a charge that cannot be sustained by proof beyond a reasonable doubt may give rise to the same punishment as if it had been so proved is repugnant," he said.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy also dissented, saying in a separate opinion that the court should have allowed lawyers in the case to submit more briefs and argue in person before issuing a decision.
Sentencing courts generally are free to take into account defendants' conduct other than that for which they were convicted, what courts called "uncharged conduct."
But the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last year that sentencing judges "cannot reconsider facts that the jury necessarily rejected by its acquittal of the defendant on another count."
Other federal appeals courts had reached the opposite conclusion, but the 9th Circuit court's ruling would have bound federal judges in nine states - California, Hawaii, Alaska, Arizona, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Washington.