Sentencing Commission Proposes Restricting Judges’ Use of Acquitted Conduct
The U.S. Sentencing Commission released proposed amendments to federal sentencing guidelines last week that would, among other things, limit judges’ ability to enhance defendants’ sentences based on conduct they were acquitted of by a jury.
It may sound bizarre and antithetical to what everyone is taught about the U.S. justice system, but defendants can be punished for crimes even when a jury finds them not guilty of the charges. At the sentencing phase of a trial, federal judges can enhance defendants’ sentences for conduct they were acquitted of if the judge decides it’s more likely than not—a lower standard of evidence than “beyond a reasonable doubt”—that the defendant committed those offenses. What this does in practice is raise defendants’ scores under the federal sentencing guidelines, leading to significantly longer prison sentences.
For example, Reason covered the case of Dickie Lynn, a former Florida Keys drug smuggler who was convicted and sentenced to seven life sentences, thanks to the use of acquitted conduct by the judge and a stiff recommendation from federal prosecutors. Lynn was the only defendant out of the 21 charged in the sprawling drug conspiracy who was sentenced to life in prison. The judge added points to Lynn’s score under the federal sentencing guidelines for being the leader of the drug enterprise, which he was acquitted of, and possessing a firearm, which he was also never convicted of.
The Sentencing Commission’s proposal would amend the federal sentencing guidelines to limit judges from considering acquitted conduct at sentencing unless the conduct was either admitted by the defendant during a guilty plea or found beyond a reasonable doubt. The sentencing guidelines are not binding, but federal judges are required to at least consider them and explain their reasoning if they deviate from them.
The issue has
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