Vol. 12, No. 5, Pg. 36. Apprendi v. New Jersey Watershed Ruling for the New Millennium?.

Author:By J. Stephen Welch

South Carolina Lawyer


Vol. 12, No. 5, Pg. 36.

Apprendi v. New Jersey Watershed Ruling for the New Millennium?

36Apprendi v. New Jersey WATERSHED RULING FOR THE NEW MILLENNIUM?By J. Stephen Welch

Every session of the U.S. Supreme Court seems to result in at least one ruling that is called a "watershed decision." The names of some of these "watershed" opinions have even made their way into our popular culture. Every sixth grader watching television can explain Miranda rights, and school children study cases such as Brown v. Board of Education and Terry v. Ohio. Even though the term "watershed" is often overused, it appears that Apprendi v. New Jersey, 120 S.Ct. 2348 (2000) may truly be such a "watershed" ruling. The decision may be a "dividing line," changing the direction of Constitutional law for years in the future.


Charles C. Apprendi Jr. fired several .22 caliber bullets into the home of an African-American family in the state of New Jersey in December 1994. The black family had recently moved into an all white neighborhood. Based on a police investigation, Apprendi was arrested and then signed a "confession," admitting that he was the shooter. After much questioning, he made a statement (which he later retracted) that the shooting occurred "because they are black in color" and "I did not want them in the neighborhood." Apprendi, at page 2351.

A New Jersey Grand Jury then returned a 23 count indictment charging Apprendi with several different offenses involving the shootings covering four different dates, as well as unlawful possession of various weapons and bombs. None of the counts made any reference to the New Jersey Hate Crime Statute, and none alleged that Apprendi acted with any type of racial motivation or purpose.

Apprendi entered into a plea agreement pursuant to which he was allowed to plead guilty to two counts of second-degree possession of a firearm for unlawful purpose (N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C:39-4a) and one count of the third-degree offense of unlawful possession of an anti-personnel bomb (N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2C:39-3a). Under New Jersey law, the second-degree offense carried a penalty range of five to 10 years and the third-degree offense carried a range of three to five years. As part of the plea agreement, the state reserved the right to request that the court impose a higher "enhanced" sentence on the second-degree possession offenses on the grounds that the offenses were committed with a "biased" purpose, as described in the New Jersey's Hate Crime Statute (N.J. Stat. Ann. '2C:44-3e). Apprendi reserved the right to challenge the hate crime sentence enhancement on the grounds that it violated the U.S. Constitution. At the sentencing, Apprendi offered evidence from a psychologist and from seven character witnesses, all of whom testified that Apprendi did not have a reputation for racial bias. He also took the stand

38himself and explained that the incident was an unintended consequence of overindulgence in alcohol, thus denying any racial bias against African-Americans. He stated that his "confession" of racial bias had been due to the police questioning tactics.

However, the judge made a finding that the police officer's testimony was credible and concluded that the evidence supported a finding that "the crime was motivated by racial bias by a preponderance of the evidence." Apprendi at page 2352. Further, the judge rejected Apprendi's constitutional challenge to the statute, and sentenced Apprendi to a 12 year term of imprisonment on the second-degree possession of a firearm count, which was two years more than the maximum allowed under the statute. The judge obviously relied upon the New Jersey Hate Crime sentencing enhancement under § 2C:44-3(e). Sentencing on the remaining two counts were less than 12 years and ran concurrent with the 12 year sentence.


Apprendi appealed to the New Jersey Appellate Court, arguing that the Due Process clause of the U.S. Constitution required that the finding of bias on which his hate crime sentence was based must be proved to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. Over a strong dissent, the Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey upheld the enhanced sentence. State v. Apprendi, 304 N.J. Super. 147, 698 A. 2d 1265 (1997).

Relying on the U.S. Supreme Court decision of McMillan v. Pennsylvania, 477 U.S. 79 (1986), the Appellate Division found that the state legislature had simply decided to make the hate crime enhancement a "sentencing factor," rather than an element of the underlying offense. Finding that the state legislature had such power in defining the elements of its crimes, the Court found that the Hate Crime Statute did not create a presumption of guilt, but merely characterized the required finding as one of...

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