* Reasoning of 2000 ruling applies now to criminal fines
* Southern Union guilty of illegally storing mercury
* At issue $18 million penalty by trial judge
By James Vicini
WASHINGTON, June 21 The U.S. Supreme Court on
Thursday overturned an $18 million penalty against a pipeline
operator for illegally storing mercury, ruling a jury must
determine any facts that increase a defendant's maximum
potential sentence, even for a criminal fine.
A jury found Southern Union guilty of storing the mercury at
a company building in Rhode Island without a permit. A federal
trial judge then imposed a $6 million fine and $12 million in
community service obligations.
Texas-based Southern Union argued the jury only found that
the company had violated the law for at least a single day,
which carries a maximum fine of $50,000.
Federal government prosecutors said the company had violated
the law for 762 days. A U.S. appeals court ruled against the
company and said the trial judge could determine the number of
days of violation in calculating the penalty.
By a 6-3 vote, the Supreme Court overturned that ruling and
sent the case back to the appeals court for further proceedings.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in the majority opinion that
the Constitution's Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial
required that the jury, rather than the judge, find any facts
necessary to increase the fine imposed in a criminal case.
She said the Supreme Court used similar reasoning in a
ruling in 2000 that a jury must find any facts that increase the
length of a prison sentence. Sotomayor said the same principle
applied to the imposition of criminal fines.
She rejected the federal government's argument that
extending the 2000 ruling to criminal fines will prevent states
and the federal government from adopting laws that calibrate the
amount of the fine to a defendant's culpability.
Justices Stephen Breyer, Anthony Kennedy and Samuel Alito
In late March, Southern Union and Energy Transfer Equity LP
announced the completion of their merger.
The Supreme Court case is Southern Union Co. v. United
States, No 11-94.