Houston-based Southern Union Co., a natural gas distributor, was convicted by a federal jury on one count of violating the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976 for having knowingly stored liquid mercury without a permit at a subsidiary's Rhode Island facility.
Violations of RCRA are punishable by a fine of not more than $50,000 for each day of violation.
At sentencing, the probation office calculated a maximum fine of $38.1 million on the assumption that Southern Union violated RCRA for each of the 762 days from Sept. 19, 2002, through Oct. 19, 2004.
But Southern Union argued that imposing any fine greater than the 1-day penalty of $50,000 would be unconstitutional under the Supreme Court's 2000 decision in Apprendi vs. New Jersey, which says the Sixth Amendment's trial-by-jury guarantee requires that any fact -- other than a prior conviction -- that increases the maximum punishment authorized for a particular crime has to be proved to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt.
Based on the jury verdict and the judge's instructions, Southern Union argued, the only violation the jury necessarily found was for one day. The trial judge ruled that Apprendi applies to criminal fines, but concluded from the "content and context of the verdict all together" that the jury found a 762-day violation. The judge set a fine of $6 million and a "community service obligation" of $12 million. A federal appeals court ruled that Apprendi does not apply to criminal fines, disagreeing with the judge that the jury necessarily found a violation of 762 days, but confirmed the sentence.
The majority opinion written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor throws out the lower court ruling and sends the case back down for a new ruling in line with the opinion.
"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," Sotomayor wrote, citing Apprendi. " ... 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."