Senators Dick Durbin (D–Ill.) and Chuck Grassley (R–Iowa) introduced a bill this week that if passed and signed into law would prohibit the use of so-called “acquitted conduct” at sentencing. What is acquitted conduct, you might ask? It is charges for which a defendant has been found not guilty that a sentencing judge nonetheless considers when sentencing that defendant for the crimes the jury says they did commit. This practice give prosecutors a special edge. Knowing that a judge may consider at sentencing every offense the prosecutor charges, a prosecutor can charge a defendant with an offense he knows he can prove beyond a reasonable doubt, and then charge more serious offenses that he probably can’t prove. Even if jurors only reach a guilty verdict on the charges proved beyond a reasonable doubt, and refuse to convict on other charges, a judge can, and often does takes all the charges into consideration at sentencing.
“If any American is acquitted of charges by a jury of their peers, then some sentencing judge shouldn’t be able to find them guilty anyway and add to their punishment,” Grassley said in a statement released this week. “That’s not acceptable and it’s not American.” Under the law he is proposing with Senator Durbin, if a prosecutor charges you with five crimes, and the jury finds you not guilty of four of them, the judge who then sentences you should be able to consider only offense you were found guilty of.
What’s going on here? It is simply that the Federal sentencing rules currently allow a judge to consider crimes he or she believes the defendant is guilty of committing regardless of what the jury decided, just as a judge can take other factors into consideration. In such cases, a judge may use a preponderance of the evidence standard, not the criminal law standard of beyond a reasonable doubt, to conclude that the jury was wrong and that a sentence should reflect conduct other than what the prosecution was able to prove to the jury’s satisfaction. Continue reading