Sentencing Guidelines Under Blakely v. Washington

In 2004, the Supreme Court's decision in Blakely v. Washington raised questions about sentencing guidelines all over the United States.

Judges use sentencing guidelines to determine the proper punishment for various crimes. Many state legislatures also gave judges the right to go outside the guidelines in certain types of cases. But, in 2004, the Supreme Court held this practice went against a defendant's constitutional rights.

Constitutional Rights at Issue

The Sixth Amendment guarantees that all criminal defendants have the right to a “speedy and public trial" by an impartial jury. In addition, the Fourteenth Amendment protects against deprivation of liberty without due process of law. Together, these rights protect criminal defendants from unwarranted criminal punishment. In Blakely and Apprendi v. New Jersey four years earlier, the Supreme Court had to decide if the right to a jury trial extended to sentencing.

Background: Apprendi v. New Jersey

Before looking closely at the Blakely decision, it's important to understand another Supreme Court case that came four years before. In 2000, the Supreme Court decided Apprendi v. New Jersey, which paved the way for the Blakely decision. In Apprendi, a New Jersey hate crime statute provided for an enhanced sentence if the trial judge found, by a “preponderance of the evidence," that the defendant committed the crime with the purpose of intimidating a person or group because of race.

Apprendi argued that allowing a judge, and not a jury, to determine whether the crime was racially motivated violated his Sixth Amendment rights. The Supreme Court agreed, holding that:

“[A]ny fact, other than the fact of a prior conviction, that increases the penalty for a crime beyond the statutory maximum must be submitted to a jury and proven beyond a reasonable doubt."

The Court reasoned that taken together, the Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments guaranteed a criminal defendant “a jury determination that he is guilty of every element of the crime with which he is charged." So, any factors that might affect the penalty for a crime must be submitted to a jury and proved beyond a reasonable doubt. This set the stage for Blakely v. Washington, where a criminal defendant asked the Supreme Court to apply its new rule not just to one criminal statute – but to a state's sentencing guidelines as a whole.

Blakely v. Washington Case Summary

Blakely was convicted of second-degree kidnapping, a charge that came with a maximum 10-year sentence under state law. But, Washington sentencing guidelines provided a standard range of 49-53 months (just over four years) for someone committing the same crime and with a similar criminal history. The guidelines also included a general departure standard where judges could impose a more severe sentence if they found there were “substantial and compelling reasons justifying an exceptional sentence."

Using the general departure standard, the judge sentenced Blakely to seven and a half years after finding he had acted with “deliberate cruelty."

Before Blakely, most lawyers and judges read the Supreme Court's decision in Apprendi to mean that “statutory maximum" referred to the maximum sentence imposed by the state statute. However, the Court clarified that it was the standard sentence that mattered. So, even though the judge in Blakely had not gone outside the statutory maximum of 10 years, the sentencing still violated the defendant's Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial:

“[T]he relevant 'statutory maximum' is not the maximum sentence a judge may impose after finding additional facts, but the maximum he may impose without any additional findings."

The Impact of Blakely

The Blakely decision put question marks on sentencing guidelines across the country. Many states had guidelines that included recommended sentences below the statutory maximum. Most had a mechanism for judges to depart from the guidelines where they saw fit. Blakely called the validity of all these systems into question, and many were found unconstitutional – including the Federal Sentencing Guidelines.

In U.S. v. Booker the following year, the Supreme Court held that several aspects of the Federal Sentencing Guidelines were unconstitutional under Blakely. However, instead of declaring the guidelines completely void, the Court opted to declare them advisory rather than mandatory.

What Is a Blakely Motion?

Prosecutors will sometimes refer to “Blakely factors" or a “Blakely motion" in a criminal case. This means they intend to pursue a sentence longer than what the state law suggests. Blakely factors are facts the prosecution would use to justify such a sentence. For example, they might argue a conviction for a violent crime calls for a longer sentence if the defendant committed the crime in front of a child. Or if the defendant was in a position of power, such as a police officer, they might argue that the crime committed was an abuse of governmental authority.

If the prosecution makes a Blakely motion, that means they are asking for a jury to determine whether there were aggravating factors at play in the case. Defendants can also waive their rights under Blakely and allow the judge in their case to determine the validity of any alleged aggravating factors.

Read the entire decision from Blakely v. Washington on FindLaw's Cases & Codes.

Related Resources:

Miranda v. Arizona: Why You Have the Right to Remain Silent

Gideon v. Wainwright: The Right to a Public Defender

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