Friday, January 25, 2008

Utah Court of Appeals Rejects Blakely/Cunningham Claim

The Utah Court of Appeals rejected the appellant's claim in State v. Garner that judicial findings that serve to enhance a defendant's sentence are unconstitutional. More specifically, the appellant argued that Utah's indeterminate sentencing scheme violates the Sixth Amendment jury trial guarantees. The sentencing scheme in place for the sex offense conviction at issue provides for a sentence of ten years to life, unless the trial judge finds mitigating or aggravating circumstances that warrant the imposition of a lesser (six year) or greater (fifteen year) term.

The appellant's argument strikes at the very heart of the Supreme Court's recent Sixth Amendment jurisprudence. Often overlooked because of the Court's recent decisions in Gall, Kimbrough, and Rita is the fact that the Supreme Court's Sixth Amendment jurisprudence does not simply govern the propriety of federal sentences; state sentences are likewise infirm if the judicially found facts enhance a defendant's sentence beyond the maximum otherwise allowed. The appellant compared Utah's sentencing scheme to the one struck down by the Supreme Court in Cunningham, which dealt with a California sentencing scheme virtually identical to the one employed by Utah. The Utah Court of Appeals nonetheless distinguished the two respective sentencing schemes on the basis that Utah has three sentencing ranges rather than the fixed terms at issue in Cunningham.

The distinction drawn by the Court of Appeals is hardly persuasive. The Supreme Court's emphasis on defendants' Sixth Amendment rights does not hinge on the fact that a jurisdiction employs sentencing ranges, particularly where the bottom end of the range is enhanced simply by virtue of judicial findings. The opinion issued by the Court of Appeals is dubious at best and disingenuous at worst. The analysis of the Supreme Court's Sixth Amendment jurisprudence, though covering two pages, is sparse and fails to provide a reasoned, analytical basis for distinguishing Cunningham other than its hasty conclusion that a sentencing range somehow changes the constitutional calculus. Defense attorneys should continue to challenge the legality of Utah's sentencing scheme; here's hoping that the attorneys who astutely observed the sentencing infirmities in this case appeal to the Utah Supreme Court.

No comments: