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Supreme Court Decision Update - Washington v. Recuenco

supreme1.jpgIn Washington v. Recuenco (PDF of the opinion), for the second time today, the Supremes decide whether a case is subject to harmless-error analysis (I know – party time!). This time, unlike in Gonzalez-Lopez, the Supremes hold that sentencing enhancement elements should be subject to harmless-error analysis because they are not structural errors – they are constitutional errors.

Quizlaw Analysis: Oh boy. In an almost incoherent Thomas opinion, the Supremes conclude that failure to submit a sentencing factor to the jury is not structural error, so unless failure to submit actually prejudices the defendant beyond a reasonable doubt, an automatic reversal is unwarranted.

Washington threatened his wife with a handgun. At trial, he was convicted of second-degree assault based on the jury’s finding that he assaulted her with a “deadly weapon.” During sentencing, however, the judge enhanced his sentence by two years based on the court’s finding that he assaulted his wife with a “firearm.” Washington appealed, arguing that the failure to submit the sentence enhancement element to the jury was a structural error, requiring automatic reversal (in other words, the jury decided that a “deadly weapon” was used but not, explicitly, that the deadly weapon in question was a “firearm”).

Justice Thomas, writing for the 7-2 majority, decided that failure to submit a sentencing factor to the jury was not a structural error — it was simply a constitutional error subject to harmless-error analysis. In the rare instances in which the Supreme Court has found a structural error, instead of a trial error, it was an error that “necessarily render[s] a criminal trial fundamentally unfair or an unreliable vehicle for determining guilt or innocence.” In Thomas’ opinion, the failure to submit the sentence enhancing element to the jury in this case did not render the trial fundamentally unfair. Thomas equates submitting sentence enhancing elements to the jury to submitting elements of a crime to the jury, and the Court had previously, in Neder v. United States, held that failing to submit all elements of a crime to the jury is not a structural error. Therefore, unless the failure to submit the sentence-enhancing element would have, beyond a reasonable doubt, changed the outcome of the case, reversal was not warranted under harmless-error analysis and Washington will have to serve his just desserts.

Kennedy filed a completely inconsequential concurrence, only to applaud the majority for not revisiting the rulings in a couple of cases it relied upon in its decision.

Ginsberg wrote the dissent, in which she was joined by Justice Stevens. In her opinion, Ginsberg argued that this case was unlike Neder, the case that Thomas relied upon to come to his decision. In Neder, certain elements of the crime were not submitted to the jury and the judge ultimately filled in the gaps — which the Supreme Court held was an error subject to harmless-error analysis. Here, Ginsberg argues, this case is different from Neder because the lower court did not fill in the gaps, it basically convicted him of a separate crime altogether — “assault with a firearm,” instead of “assault with a deadly weapon,” which was the crime submitted to the jury. Ginsberg rightfully held that charging a person with one crime and convicting him of another violated the Fifth and Sixth Amendments. The majority, clearly, did not see it in the same way.

Finally, Stevens wrote a separate dissent, basically just to note that the Court should have never granted cert to this case in the first place because jurisdiction was questionable.