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The California determinate sentencing law, by placing sentence-elevating factfinding within the judge's province, violates a defendant's right to trial by jury safeguarded by the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments.
Petitioner Cunningham was tried and convicted of continuous sexual abuse of a child under 14. Under California's determinate sentencing law (DSL), that offense is punishable by one of three precise terms of imprisonment: a lower term sentence of 6 years, a middle term sentence of 12 years, or an upper term sentence of 16 years. The DSL obliged the trial judge to sentence Cunningham to the 12-year middle term unless the judge found one or more additional "circumstances in aggravation." Court Rules adopted to implement the DSL define "circumstances in aggravation" as facts that justify the upper term. Those facts, the Rules provide, must be established by a preponderance of the evidence. Based on a post-trial sentencing hearing, the judge found by a preponderance of the evidence six aggravating facts, including the particular vulnerability of the victim, and one mitigating fact, that Cunningham had no record of prior criminal conduct. Concluding that the aggravators outweighed the sole mitigator, the judge sentenced Cunningham to the upper term of 16 years. The California Court of Appeal affirmed. The State Supreme Court denied review, but in a decision published nine days earlier, People v. Black, 35 Cal. 4th 1238, 29 Cal. Rptr. 3d 740, 113 P.3d 534, that court held that the DSL survived Sixth Amendment inspection.
Did the DSL, by placing sentence-elevating factfinding within the judge's province, violate a defendant's right to trial by jury safeguarded by the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments?
The Supreme Court found that the DSL violated the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial because it exposed defendant to a sentence in excess of the statutory maximum based on facts found by the trial court by a preponderance of the evidence rather than by the jury beyond a reasonable doubt. The middle term was the "statutory maximum" because it was the maximum sentence that could be imposed based on the jury's verdict alone. The DSL did not allow judges to exercise their discretion to select a specific sentence within a defined range. A requirement that the sentencing decision be reasonable was not a substitute for the constraints of the Sixth Amendment.