WASHINGTON – When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on an obscure New Jersey hate crime case last summer, it created a buzz in prisons across the country.
Many criminal defendants and public defenders saw Apprendi vs. New Jersey as “earth-shattering,” with the potential to drastically reduce sentences for a wide range of crimes, from food stamp fraud to selling migratory birds to drug cases and even murder.
Courts feared that they would be overwhelmed by a flood of inmate appeals.
But many U.S. circuit courts — including the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over Maryland — have interpreted the ruling so narrowly that few defendants are seeing any benefits.
“I’m not really sure if anybody is (benefiting) right now” from Apprendi in the 4th Circuit, said Paula Xinis, a federal public defender in Greenbelt.
Martin G. Bahl, an attorney with the Baltimore office of the federal public defender, estimates that less than 10 people in the federal court system nationwide have had their sentences reduced thanks to the decision.
Before the Apprendi ruling, a judge passing sentence in a drug case would consider the amount of the drug involved in the case, determining that amount through a “preponderance” of the evidence, then set the sentence based on the quantity involved, Bahl said.
But the Supreme Court said in Apprendi that it could be unconstitutional to set higher-than-normal sentences based merely on a preponderance of evidence. The high court said judges must use the higher standard of evidence “beyond a reasonable doubt,” the same standard juries use when determining guilt or innocence.
The ruling stemmed from a 1994 case, when Vineland, N.J., resident Charles C. Apprendi Jr. fired several shots into the home of the only African-American family in his neighborhood. The trial judge sentenced Apprendi to 12 years, a term that exceeded the statutory maximum sentence, after determining by a preponderance of the evidence that it was a hate crime.
Apprendi was not charged with a hate crime in the indictment, and thus that charge was never submitted to the jury.
The Supreme Court’s subsequent decision to overturn Apprendi’s sentence established that “any fact that increases the penalty for a crime beyond the prescribed statutory maximum must be submitted to a jury” and facts that enhance the sentence “must be established by proof beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Justice John Paul Stevens wrote that the 14th and 16th Amendments guarantee a defendant’s right “to a jury determination that he is guilty of every element of the crime with which he is charged, beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Only three days after the June 26 ruling, the first of what would be many cases was sent down to the lower courts citing Apprendi. The Supreme Court has sent down about 48 cases so far this term, including nine from the 4th Circuit.
But, contrary to initial hopes of defendants and their lawyers, lower courts have not drastically reduced drug sentences.
The “circuits have almost uniformly gone with the strict interpretation,” said David Beneman, a Maine lawyer and author of an early article on Apprendi.
He said lower courts have ruled that drug quantities are sentencing factors and not elements of the offense, which require a higher standard of proof under Apprendi.
Beneman also said that “Apprendi just doesn’t help you” with sentences under 20 years because it only applies when judges exceed the mandatory maximum sentence for a crime. And even if a sentence exceeds the mandatory maximum, most circuits have gotten around it by ruling that in cases with multiple charges, the sentences can be stacked consecutively to achieve the same amount of jail time.
In other words, Beneman said, an offender sentenced to 40 years on multiple counts will have little luck with Apprendi, since the courts will reason that he could just as easily received two 20-year sentences.
The 4th Circuit has followed that reasoning in the Apprendi cases it has handled so far. Xinis said that, in a way, the appellate court is “second- guessing” how the lower court judge might have combined charges to reach the same sentence.
The courts have further limited the reach of Apprendi by limiting the number of convictions covered.
The 4th Circuit has ruled that cases cannot be reviewed more than one year after the conviction becomes final, Beneman said, unless there is a new constitutional issue. The circuits have split on whether Apprendi constitutes a new issue, with the more conservative courts, such as the 4th, weighing in against reviewing convictions.
Xinis calls the 4th Circuit “pretty close” to being the most conservative in the country, and Beneman agreed. “Anybody is going to be more liberal than the 4th,” he said.
As for the flood of appeals, 4th Circuit clerk Pat Connor said that there has been little change in the number of direct appeals in the eight months since Apprendi. The court has seen an increase, however, in the number of post- conviction appeals, which rose from 674 in the eight months before Apprendi to 853 in the eight months since.
The ruling has had some effect on the prosecution of drug cases, however. Xinis said even before last summer’s ruling, she began to see drug amounts listed on indictments.
But Xinis said no one in the system now would receive any relief until the Supreme Court clarifies the issue for the lower courts.
“I think it cries out for clarification,” Bahl said.