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Supreme Court to Decide Whether Apprendi Applies to Corporate Fines

March 21, 2012, by The McKellar Law Firm, PLLC

In Southern Union Co. v. United States, No. 11-94 (2012), a federal court judge imposed fines of $6 million and $12 million for illegal storage of mercury by Southern Union Company. The decision has been appealed to the United States Supreme Court on the grounds that the judge ordered penalties that were inconsistent with the statute's maximums. The statute states a maximum penalty for the infraction is $50,000 per day. The jury in the federal court was not asked to make a decision on how many days the Southern Union Company violated the law.

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The case has caused the Supreme Court to interpret the case of Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466 (2000), as it relates to criminal fines. Apprendi held that the Sixth Amendment prevented judges from increasing prison sentences beyond statutory maximums based on facts that are not submitted to a jury. Now the Supreme Court must decide if they are willing to extend that logic to monetary fines.

According to the ABA Journal, government attorney Michael Dreeben supports the federal judge's decision stating that, "deprivations of life and liberty get greater protection than financial penalties." This ruling may have severe financial implications for those persons or entities facing potential criminal fines.