This may come as a shock. Being acquitted of a crime doesn’t mean you can’t be punished for committing it. People can and do get punished for crimes they got acquitted of committing.
It happens when a person is charged with more than one crime. If they are acquitted of one or more crimes but not all, they will still be sentenced for the crimes they were convicted of. When the judges calculate the sentences in these cases, they are allowed to take the acquitted conduct into account as long as they believe the defendant was more likely guilty than not.
Daytona McClinton, for example, was convicted of robbing a pharmacy. In the same trial, the jury acquitted him of murder. Nevertheless, when it came time to be sentenced for the robbery, the judge added 13 years to his sentence because he believed McClinton was more likely than not guilty in the murder, too.
Why is this legal? There was a Supreme Court case in 1997 that specifically allowed it. Ever since then, advocates for the defense and other reformers have urged the court to overturn that decision.
It might happen next month. Four defendants, including Daytona McClinton, have appealed to the Supreme Court after being punished for acquitted conduct. The court has not said whether it will take up their cases.
If it does, there is a fairly good chance the court would declare sentencing for acquitted conduct unconstitutional. According to the Associated Press, there is reason to believe that Justice Clarence Thomas, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson and Justice Brett Kavanaugh would be inclined to rule that way.
“Allowing judges to rely on acquitted or uncharged conduct to impose higher sentences than they otherwise would impose seems a dubious infringement of the rights to due process and to a jury trial,” Justice Kavanaugh wrote in 2015, according to the AP.
The court could be ready to abandon the practice
It’s fair to say that people are generally outraged by judges considering acquitted conduct in sentencing. Indeed, 17 former federal judges signed a brief in favor of Daytona McClinton.
However, the Department of Justice defends the law.
It will be interesting to see how today’s court views this issue. Justice Jackson, a former public defender who also once served on the U.S. Sentencing Commission, could play a pivotal role. She replaced Justice Stephen Breyer, who generally supported judicial discretion in sentencing.
We hope the court does take up this important issue and rules it unconstitutional for judges to take acquitted conduct into account. Due process and the presumption of innocence demand it.