1/15/2011

By Jason Chimon

The Supreme Court is currently considering whether to grant review of the Seventh Circuit’s decision in Welch v. United States.   In the case, petitioner Devin Welch pled guilty to unlawful possession of a firearm by a felon after drug task force agents discovered the weapon hidden beneath a mattress while executing a search warrant.  During sentencing, the lower court classified Welch as an armed career criminal because it deemed that he had three prior convictions that qualified as ‘violent felonies.’  The third of these prior convictions was a prior juvenile adjudication for attempted armed robbery that was without a jury.

If the Court grants review, it will be able to resolve a split among circuits relating to the proper scope of a criminal defendant’s jury trial rights.  According to the petitioner, the lower court’s ruling that a juvenile and –more importantly – non-jury trial may count for purposes of increasing a defendant’s sentence beyond the statutory maximum conflicts with Sixth Amendment precedent.  See Petition for Certiorari. 

It seems that this may be the correct view, as the rule set forth in Apprendi v. New Jersey, states that “[o]ther than the fact of a prior conviction, any fact that increases the penalty for a crime beyond the prescribed statutory maximum must be submitted to a jury, and proved beyond a reasonable doubt.” 530 U.S. 466, 490 (2000).  Prior convictions are excepted from the rule that facts increasing criminal penalties beyond statutory maximums need to be submitted to a jury to be considered because these prior convictions have already been submitted to a jury and proven beyond a reasonable doubt.  With proceedings like juvenile adjudications without a jury, however, the very reason for creating a ‘conviction exception’ does not exist.  The rule should instead be interpreted to mean that all facts to be used in determining whether a sentence can be increased beyond the statutory maximum must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury at some point, whether at a prior proceeding, or the current one.

It will be interesting to see whether the Court seizes the opportunity it has here to clarify the Apprendi rule, and to see in which the direction the Court will lean in interpreting the rule if review is granted.