In 2007, three men were convicted of selling somewhere between 2 and 11 grams of cocaine. According to The National Law Journal, all three men were acquitted of several other charges that implied they were part of a drug conspiracy and committed white collar crimes such as racketeering. Despite the acquittal on those charges, a U.S. District Court judge said he saw “clear evidence” of conspiracy and sentenced each of the men to between 15 and 18 years of prison time.
The Supreme Court of the United States refused to hear the case, effectively allowing for a federal judge in Minnesota or elsewhere to continue to sentence people for crimes they did not commit.
Dissent in the high court
Several Supreme Court justices did not agree with the decision to refuse to hear the case from 2007. In their dissent, the justices noted that it is possible that issuing penalties without convictions could violate the Sixth Amendment, which provides rights to criminal defendants such as the right to a fair trial and the right to an attorney. Avoiding the case, the justices in the dissent state, implies that the U.S. Constitution allows defendants to be sentenced for crimes for which they have been acquitted, and even for crimes for which they have never been charged.
Yet silence from the Supreme Court does not necessarily mean that the justices have no interest in the issue. The National Law Journal points out that it is possible that the specific case was not an ideal situation for creating precedent. In the 2007 example, the judge knowingly ignored an acquittal from a jury. However, as one law professor notes, it would be more common that a judge enhances a sentence for an act for which a person was not charged or was not part of a plea agreement. Therefore, it may be that the nation’s highest court revisits the matter if another case that fits the bill comes along.
History repeats itself
Unfortunately, the case of these men is not the only time in which federal judges have issued penalties without a crimes conviction. In a Florida case in 2004, a man was sentenced for a murder for which he was never charged. In another case in Virginia, a man pled guilty to firearm and drug charges, but a judge issued a life sentence because he said there was convincing evidence that the defendant was involved in three murders.
Until the U.S. Supreme Court rules otherwise, it is possible for federal judges to continue such behavior, which essentially renders useless the notion of “innocent until proven guilty.” And while the justices wait for another case to come along, the defendants in these cases are sitting in jail for crimes for which they have not been convicted.