United States of America
In this case, etitioner Southern Union Company is a natural gas distributor. Its subsidiary stored liquid mercury, a hazardous substance, at a facility in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. In September 2004, youths from a nearby apartment complex broke into the facility, played with the mercury, and spread it around the facility and complex. The complex's residents were temporarily displaced during the cleanup and most underwent testing for mercury poisoning. The case raises the important question of whether a criminal fine must be vacated under Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466 (2000), where a judge, and not a jury, determined the facts as to the number of days of violation under a schedule of fines. Violations of the RCRA are punishable by, inter alia, "a fine of not more than $50,000 for each day of violation." At sentencing, the probation office set a maximum fine of $38.1 million, on the basis that Southern Union violated the RCRA for each of the 762 days from September 19, 2002, through October 19, 2004. Southern Union objected that this calculation violated Apprendi because the jury was not asked to determine the precise duration of the violation. The Government acknowledged the jury was not asked to specify the duration of the violation, but argued that Apprendi does not apply to criminal fines. The District Court disagreed and held that Apprendi applies. But the court concluded from the "content and context of the verdict all together" that the jury found a 762-day violation. The court therefore set a maximum potential fine of $38.1 million, from which it imposed a fine of $6 million and a "community service obligatio[n]" of $12 million. On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit rejected the District Court's conclusion that the jury necessarily found a violation of 762 days. But the Court of Appeals affirmed the sentence because it also held, again in contrast to the District Court, that Apprendi does not apply to criminal fines. Other Circuits have reached the opposite conclusion. The majority Supreme Court said, "We granted certiorari to resolve the conflict. . . and now reverse. . . We hold that the rule of Apprendi applies to the imposition of criminal fines. The judgment of the Court of Appeals is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion." Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in the majority opinion that the Constitution's Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial required that the jury, rather than the judge, find any facts necessary to increase the fine imposed in a criminal case. She said the Supreme Court used similar reasoning in a ruling in 2000 that a jury must find any facts that increase the length of a prison sentence. Sotomayor said the same principle applied to the imposition of criminal fines.