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March 8, 2005 - Associated Press (US)

High Court Says Judges Can't Use Unproven Reports To Add Jail Time

By Hope Yen, AP

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Blakely News Archive

WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court further restricted federal judges' sentencing powers Monday, ruling that police reports and other unproven evidence cannot be used to tack on prison time.

The 5-3 decision in a Massachusetts case puts into doubt judicial fact-finding involving a defendant's prior behavior when boosting sentences.

Most states rely on some sort of judicial fact-finding for prior convictions in their sentencing systems.

Douglas Berman, a sentencing expert at Ohio State University's law school, said the ruling, coming on the heels of January's decision that found federal sentencing guidelines unconstitutional, adds confusion.

Justice David Souter, writing for a four-justice plurality, said only a plea agreement, a charging document to which a defendant pleads guilty, an admission by a defendant and similarly reliable facts may be used to stiffen sentences.

Souter was joined by Justices John Paul Stevens, Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

The case involved Reginald Shepard, who pleaded guilty to gun possession.

At sentencing, the government asked that Shepard be sentenced to 15 years under a federal "career criminal" law, based on three prior convictions for burglary.

At issue was whether the burglaries to which Shepard pleaded guilty involved a "building," as opposed to a vehicle or vessel, which are not considered violent under federal law.

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