Supreme Court of the United States
RAY A. LEWIS
Decided June 24, 1996
Justice O’Connor, For the Court
|Topic: Criminal Procedure*
|Court vote: 7–2
Click any Justice for detailJoining O'Connor opinion: Chief Justice REHNQUIST Justice SCALIA Justice SOUTER Justice THOMAS
|Citation: 518 U.S. 322
|Audio: Listen to this case's oral arguments at Oyez
* As categorized by the Washington University Law Supreme Court Database
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JUSTICE O'CONNOR delivered the opinion of the Court.
This case presents the question whether a defendant who is prosecuted in a single proceeding for multiple petty offenses has a constitutional right to a jury trial where the aggregate prison term authorized for the offenses exceeds six months. We are also asked to decide whether a defendant who would otherwise have a constitutional right to a jury trial may be denied that right because the presiding judge has made a pretrial commitment that the aggregate sentence imposed will not exceed six months.
We conclude that no jury trial right exists where a defendant is prosecuted for multiple petty offenses. The Sixth Amendment's guarantee of the right to a jury trial does not extend to petty offenses, and its scope does not change where a defendant faces a potential aggregate prison term in excess of six months for petty offenses charged. Because we decide that no jury trial right exists where a defendant is charged with multiple petty offenses, we do not reach the second question.
* David A. Reiser, John Vanderstar, and Jeffrey B. Coopersmith filed a brief for the National Legal Aid and Defender Association et al. as amici curiae urging reversal.
Christopher Warnock filed a brief for the Jury Trial Group as amicus curiae.
Petitioner Ray Lewis was a mail handler for the United States Postal Service. One day, postal inspectors saw him open several pieces of mail and pocket the contents. The next day, the inspectors routed "test" mail, containing marked currency, through petitioner's station. After seeing petitioner open the mail and remove the currency, the inspectors arrested him. Petitioner was charged with two counts of obstructing the mail, in violation of 18 U. S. C. § 170l. Each count carried a maximum authorized prison sentence of six months. Petitioner requested a jury, but the Magistrate Judge granted the Government's motion for a bench trial. She explained that because she would not, under any circumstances, sentence petitioner to more than six months' imprisonment, he was not entitled to a jury trial.
Petitioner sought review of the denial of a jury trial, and the District Court affirmed. Petitioner appealed, and the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed. 65 F.3d 252 (1995). The court noted that the Sixth Amendment jury trial right pertains only to serious offenses, that is, those for which the legislature has authorized a maximum penalty of over six months' imprisonment. The court then addressed the question whether a defendant facing more than six months' imprisonment in the aggregate for multiple petty offenses is nevertheless entitled to a jury trial. The Court of Appeals concluded that, for determination of the right to a jury trial, the proper focus is on the legislature's determination regarding the character of the offense, as indicated by maximum penalty authorized, not on the length of the maximum aggregate sentence faced. Id., at 254-255. Because each offense charged here was petty in character, the court concluded that petitioner was not entitled to a jury trial.
The court explained in dictum that because the character of the offense as petty or serious determined the right to a jury trial, not the sentence faced, a trial judge's self-imposed limitation on sentencing could not deprive a defendant of the right to a jury trial. Id., at 255-256.
We granted certiorari, 516 U. S. 1088 (1996), to resolve a conflict in the Courts of Appeals over whether a defendant prosecuted in a single proceeding for multiple petty offenses has a constitutional right to a jury trial, where the aggregate sentence authorized for the offenses exceeds six months' imprisonment, and whether such jury trial right can be eliminated by a judge's pretrial commitment that the aggregate sentence imposed will not exceed six months. See United States v. Coppins, 953 F.2d 86 (CA4 1991); United States v. Bencheck, 926 F.2d 1512 (CAlO 1991); Rife v. Godbehere, 814 F. 2d 563 (CA9 1987).
The Sixth Amendment guarantees that "[i]n all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed .... " It is well established that the Sixth Amendment, like the common law, reserves this jury trial right for prosecutions of serious offenses, and that "there is a category of petty crimes or offenses which is not subject to the Sixth Amendment jury trial provision." Duncan v. Louisiana, 391 U. S. 145, 159 (1968).
To determine whether an offense is properly characterized as "petty," courts at one time looked to the nature of the offense and whether it was triable by a jury at common law. Such determinations became difficult, because many statutory offenses lack common-law antecedents. Blanton v. North Las Vegas, 489 U. S. 538, 541, and n. 5 (1989). Therefore, more recently, we have instead sought "objective indications of the seriousness with which society regards the offense." Frank v. United States, 395 U. S. 147, 148 (1969); accord, District of Columbia v. Clawans, 300 U. S. 617, 628 (1937). Now, to determine whether an offense is petty, we consider the maximum penalty attached to the offense. This criterion is considered the most relevant with which to assess the character of an offense, because it reveals the legislature's judgment about the offense's severity. "The judiciary should not substitute its judgment as to seriousness for that of a legislature, which is far better equipped to perform the task .... " Blanton, 489 U. S., at 541 (internal quotation marks omitted). In evaluating the seriousness of the offense, we place primary emphasis on the maximum prison term authorized. While penalties such as probation or a fine may infringe on a defendant's freedom, the deprivation of liberty imposed by imprisonment makes that penalty the best indicator of whether the legislature considered an offense to be "petty" or "serious." Id., at 542. An offense carrying a maximum prison term of six months or less is presumed petty, unless the legislature has authorized additional statutory penalties so severe as to indicate that the legislature considered the offense serious. Id., at 543; Codispoti v. Pennsylvania, 418 U. S. 506, 512 (1974).
Here, the maximum authorized penalty for obstruction of mail is six months' imprisonment-a penalty that presumptively places the offense in the "petty" category. We face the question whether petitioner is nevertheless entitled to a jury trial, because he was tried in a single proceeding for two counts of the petty offense so that the potential aggregated penalty is 12 months' imprisonment.
Petitioner argues that, where a defendant is charged with multiple petty offenses in a single prosecution, the Sixth Amendment requires that the aggregate potential penalty be the basis for determining whether a jury trial is required.
Although each offense charged here was petty, petitioner faced a potential penalty of more than six months' imprisonment; and, of course, if any offense charged had authorized more than six months' imprisonment, he would have been entitled to a jury trial. The Court must look to the aggregate potential prison term to determine the existence of the jury trial right, petitioner contends, not to the "petty" character of the offenses charged.
We disagree. The Sixth Amendment reserves the jury trial right to defendants accused of serious crimes. As set forth above, we determine whether an offense is serious by looking to the judgment of the legislature, primarily as expressed in the maximum authorized term of imprisonment. Here, by setting the maximum authorized prison term at six months, the Legislature categorized the offense of obstructing the mail as petty. The fact that petitioner was charged with two counts of a petty offense does not revise the legislative judgment as to the gravity of that particular offense, nor does it transform the petty offense into a serious one, to which the jury trial right would apply. We note that there is precedent at common law that a jury trial was not provided to a defendant charged with multiple petty offenses. See, e. g., Queen v. Matthews, 10 Mod. 26, 88 Eng. Rep. 609 (Q. B. 1712); King v. Swallow, 8 T. R. 285, 101 Eng. Rep. 1392 (K. B. 1799).
Petitioner nevertheless insists that a defendant is entitled to a jury trial whenever he faces a deprivation of liberty for a period exceeding six months, a proposition for which he cites our precedent establishing the six-months' prison sentence as the presumptive cutoff for determining whether an offense is "petty" or "serious." To be sure, in the cases in which we sought to determine the line between "petty" and "serious" for Sixth Amendment purposes, we considered the severity of the authorized deprivation of liberty as an indicator of the legislature's appraisal of the offense. See Blanton, supra, at 542-543; Baldwin v. New York, 399 U. S. 66, 68-69 (1970) (plurality opinion). But it is now settled that a legislature's determination that an offense carries a maximum prison term of six months or less indicates its view that an offense is "petty." Blanton, supra, at 543. Where we have a judgment by the legislature that an offense is "petty," we do not look to the potential prison term faced by a particular defendant who is charged with more than one such petty offense. The maximum authorized penalty provides an "objective indicatio[n] of the seriousness with which society regards the offense," Frank, 395 U. S., at 148, and it is that indication that is used to determine whether a jury trial is required, not the particularities of an individual case. Here, the penalty authorized by Congress manifests its judgment that the offense is petty, and the term of imprisonment faced by petitioner by virtue of the second count does not alter that fact.
Petitioner directs our attention to Codispoti for support for the assertion that the "aggregation of multiple petty offenses renders a prosecution serious for jury trial purposes." Brief for Petitioner 18. Codispoti is inapposite. There, defendants were each convicted at a single, nonjury trial for several charges of criminal contempt. The Court was unable to determine the legislature's judgment of the character of that offense, however, because the legislature had not set a specific penalty for criminal contempt. In such a situation, where the legislature has not specified a maximum penalty, courts use the severity of the penalty actually imposed as the measure of the character of the particular offense. Codispoti, supra, at 511; Frank, supra, at 149. Here, in contrast, we need not look to the punishment actually imposed, because we are able to discern Congress' judgment of the character of the offense.
Furthermore, Codispoti emphasized the special concerns raised by the criminal contempt context. Contempt "often strikes at the most vulnerable and human qualities of a judge's temperament. Even where the contempt is not a direct insult to the court ... it frequently represents a rejection of judicial authority, or an interference with the judicial process .... " Codispoti, 418 U. S., at 516 (internal quotation marks omitted); see also Mayberry v. Pennsylvania, 400 U. S. 455, 465-466 (1971). In the face of courtroom disruption, a judge may have difficulty maintaining the detachment necessary for fair adjudication; at the same time, it is a judge who "determines which and how many acts of contempt the citation will cover," "determine[s] guilt or innocence absent a jury," and "impose[s] the sentence." Codispoti, 418 U. S., at 515. Therefore, Codispoti concluded that the concentration of power in the judge in the often heated contempt context presented the "very likelihood of arbitrary action that the requirement of jury trial was intended to avoid or alleviate." Ibid. The benefit of a jury trial, "'as a protection against the arbitrary exercise of official power,'" was deemed particularly important in that context. Id., at 516 (quoting Bloom v. Illinois, 391 U. S. 194, 202 (1968)).
The absence of a legislative judgment about the offense's seriousness, coupled with the unique concerns presented in a criminal contempt case, persuaded us in Codispoti that, in those circumstances, the jury trial right should be determined by the aggregate penalties actually imposed. Codispoti was held to be entitled to a jury trial, because the sentence actually imposed on him for criminal contempt exceeded six months. By comparison, in Taylor v. Hayes, 418 U. S. 488 (1974), which similarly involved a defendant convicted of criminal contempt in a jurisdiction where the legislature had not specified a penalty, we determined that the defendant was not entitled to a jury trial, because the sentence actually imposed for criminal contempt did not exceed six months. Contrary to JUSTICE KENNEDY'S argument, see post, at 331-334, 338, Codispoti and Taylor do not stand for the sweeping proposition that, outside their narrow context, the jury trial right is determined by the aggregate penalties faced by a defendant.
Certainly the aggregate potential penalty faced by petitioner is of serious importance to him. But to determine whether an offense is serious for Sixth Amendment purposes, we look to the legislature's judgment, as evidenced by the maximum penalty authorized. Where the offenses charged are petty, and the deprivation of liberty exceeds six months only as a result of the aggregation of charges, the jury trial right does not apply. As petitioner acknowledges, even if he were to prevail, the Government could properly circumvent the jury trial right by charging the counts in separate informations and trying them separately.
The Constitution's guarantee of the right to a jury trial extends only to serious offenses, and petitioner was not charged with a serious offense. That he was tried for two counts of a petty offense, and therefore faced an aggregate potential term of imprisonment of more than six months, does not change the fact that the Legislature deemed this offense petty. Petitioner is not entitled to a jury trial.
Because petitioner is not entitled to a jury trial, we need not reach the question whether a judge's self-imposed limitation on sentencing may affect the jury trial right.
The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit is affirmed.
It is so ordered.
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