Lewis v. United States

RESPONDENT: United States
LOCATION: Consolidated Coin Caterers Corp.

DOCKET NO.: 95-6465
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit

CITATION: 518 US 322 (1996)
ARGUED: Apr 23, 1996
DECIDED: Jun 24, 1996

Cornelia T. L. Pillard - Department of Justice, argued the cause for the respondent
Steven M. Statsinger - Argued the cause for the petitioner

Facts of the case

Ray Lewis, a mail handler for the United States Postal Service, was observed opening several pieces of mail and pocketing the contents. Subsequently, Lewis was charged with two counts of obstructing the mail, where each charge carries a maximum authorized prison sentence of six months. Lewis requested a jury trial. Denying his request, the Magistrate Judge ordered a bench trial, explaining that because she would not sentence him to more than six months' imprisonment, he was not entitled to a jury trial. The District Court affirmed. In affirming, the Court of Appeals noted that the Sixth Amendment jury trial right pertains only to those offenses for which the legislature has authorized a maximum penalty of over six months' imprisonment. The Court continued that, because each offense charged was petty in character, the fact that Lewis was facing more than six months' imprisonment in the aggregate did not entitle him to a jury trial. The court also reasoned that because the offense's characterization as petty or serious determined the right to a jury trial, a trial judge's self-imposed limitation on sentencing could not deprive a defendant of that right.


Does a defendant who is prosecuted in a single proceeding for multiple petty offenses have a constitutional right to a jury trial where the aggregate prison term authorized for the offenses exceeds six months? May a defendant who would otherwise have a constitutional right to a jury trial be denied that right because the presiding judge has made a pretrial commitment that the aggregate sentence imposed will not exceed six months?

Media for Lewis v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 23, 1996 in Lewis v. United States

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument next in Number 95-6465, Ray Lewis v. United States.

Mr. Statsinger.

Steven M. Statsinger:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

By requiring jury trials in all criminal prosecutions, the Framers made a lasting statement about the structure of Government and the balance of political power.

In cases where the threat to liberty is dire, the power to convict does not belong to the State, it belongs to the people themselves.

The Framers regarded the jury trial as such a potent instrument against Government oppression that they included the guarantee in the Constitution not once, but twice.

These bedrock political values, the plain language of the Sixth Amendment guarantee, and this Court's decisions construing the Sixth Amendment, all point toward a single conclusion.

My client, who faced 1 year in prison on the two counts in which he was tried, was entitled to a jury trial.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

But wouldn't be if the counts were split up into two separate prosecutions.

Steven M. Statsinger:

That is correct, Justice Ginburg... Ginsburg.

David H. Souter:

So if we accept your view in order to make anything but sort of a farcical rule we would have to, I suppose, have a rule of compulsory joinder.

Steven M. Statsinger:

I disagree with that, with all respect, Justice Souter.

The reason is that in the first place it strikes us as very unlikely that the Government would seek to sever counts in order to circumvent this rule.

The reason is that... for that is that the Government derives a benefit from joining counts, and has every incentive to join them and not to sever them.

David H. Souter:

Well, it may, it may not.

I mean, it may get a benefit if the evidence, in fact, is common to all of the counts, or all of the separate indictments, but if the Government really wants somebody to do the maximum amount of hard time, I suppose even under the guidelines there's some reason to believe the total will be greater if they're tried separately.

So the Government might be under conflicting motivations and it might in some cases decide to sever, and I would suppose if it does, unless we have a compulsory joinder rule, then the rule that you argue for is not going to be of any practical effect.

Steven M. Statsinger:

I continue to disagree with that view.

I think that the value to the prosecution of joining counts would outweigh those concerns, because the Government would get not only the administrative convenience of a single proceeding, but it also does derive a tactical advantage from joining the counts in the first place.

The finder of fact gets to hear evidence that the defendant is, in essence, a worse defendant, because he or she has committed more than one offense, and there's also the possibility of some sort of spillover that might bolster some of the weaker counts.

William H. Rehnquist:

You, at any rate, are not arguing for a compulsory joinder rule along with your view of the jury trial requirement.

Steven M. Statsinger:

I am not, Mr. Chief Justice.

To the extent necessary, we believe that the Due Process Clause might give sufficient protection to protect against that kind of abuse.

Antonin Scalia:

Mr. Statsinger, how does your... how does the rule you're urging square with the proposition that you cannot avoid jury trial requirement by committing that you will not ask for a sentence of more than 6 months?

I mean, can the prosecution, by making that commitment and the judge, by saying at the outset, I... it is understood that whatever... eve if the defendant is found guilty he will not be sentenced by more than 6 months, can you eliminate the jury trial by doing just that?

Steven M. Statsinger:

No, you cannot, Justice Souter.

Antonin Scalia:

Now, why would that be consistent with the rule that you're urging here?

It seems to me what it means is, by subtracting you can't avoid the jury trial.

Why, by adding, should you require it?

Steven M. Statsinger:

The two positions are entirely consistent, Justice Souter, for this reason--