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Supreme Court Ruling Says Juries Must Set Criminal Penalties in Environmental Cases

Date: June 29, 2012

Source: News Room

The US Supreme Court has ruled in case that is likely to make it harder for the EPA to enforce higher penalties against companies believed to have violated pollution control and other environmental laws. The court ruled 6-3 in the case, Southern Union Company v. USA, that juries, not judges, must set limits for criminal penalties in cases brought under the Resource Conservation & Recovery Act (RCRA). The justices agreed with the company that a prior court precedent requiring prosecutors to obtain jury rulings when seeking enhanced sentencing should also apply to criminal penalties.

"The Sixth Amendment reserves to juries the determination of any fact, other than the fact of a prior conviction, that increases a criminal defendant's maximum potential sentence," the majority said in its ruling. "We have applied this principle in numerous cases where the sentence was imprisonment or death. The question here is whether the same rule applies to sentences of criminal fines. We hold that it does."

In Southern Union, a trial court jury found the company's waste mercury storage practices violated RCRA. But the judge -- rather than the jury -- imposed a fine of $18 million on the company, based in part on a finding that the company was in violation of RCRA for 762 days. The company appealed the decision, where the court again upheld the fine, before seeking a writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court.

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