Southern Union Company v. United States

PETITIONER: Southern Union Company
RESPONDENT: United States
LOCATION: Circuit Court of Jefferson County, Kentucky

DOCKET NO.: 11-94
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit

CITATION: 567 US (2012)
GRANTED: Nov 28, 2011
ARGUED: Mar 19, 2012
DECIDED: Jun 21, 2012

Carter G. Phillips - for the petitioner
Michael R. Dreeben - Deputy Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the respondent

Facts of the case

Southern Union Company is a diversified natural gas company with a storage facility in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. In September of 2004, vandals broke into the facility and found liquid mercury. The vandals spilled the liquid mercury in and around the facility and around a nearby apartment complex. Southern Union did not discover the spill for several weeks, and the apartment residents were displaced for two months during the subsequent cleanup.

On September 19, 2002, a grand jury returned an indictment charging Southern Union with illegally storing mercury without a permit. Southern Union was convicted by a jury, but the jury did not determine how many days Southern Union had illegally stored the mercury. At sentencing, the district court applied the penalty provision of 42 U.S.C. § 6928(d), which provided a maximum fine of $50,000 for each day of violation. The U.S. Office of Probation set the maximum fine for Southern Union's offense at $38.1 million dollars by multiplying $50,000 times 762, the full number of days referred to in the indictment.

Southern Union objected. The company argued that the number of days that Southern Union illegally stored mercury was a fact that should have been determined by a jury, because it increased the maximum criminal penalty. As such, Southern Union believed that the imposition of the $38.1 million dollar fine was a violation of its rights to criminal due process under the Fifth Amendment and to a trial by jury under the Sixth Amendment.

The district court requested briefs, but it ultimately concluded that a fact which increases a criminal penalty need not be tried by a jury if the penalty is a criminal fine. Southern Union appealed. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit rejected Southern Union's arguments and affirmed the lower court's decision.


In light of the rights to criminal due process under the Fifth Amendment and a trial by jury under the Sixth Amendment, must a fact that increases the penalty for a crime, beyond the prescribed statutory maximum, be submitted to a jury and proved beyond a reasonable doubt if the penalty is the imposition of criminal fines?

Media for Southern Union Company v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 19, 2012 in Southern Union Company v. United States

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 21, 2012 in Southern Union Company v. United States

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Sotomayor has our opinion this morning in case 11-94, Southern Union Company versus the United States.

Sonia Sotomayor:

This case is about the Sixth Amendment right of jury trial.

In Apprendi versus New Jersey, we held that this right requires that other than the fact of a prior conviction, any fact that increases the maximum punishment for criminal defendant cases must be proved to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt rather than to a judge under a lower standard of proof.

We have reaffirmed the Apprendi's rules numerous times in cases where the punishment at issue was imprisonment or the death sentence.

The question here is whether Apprendi also applies when the punishment is a criminal fine.

We hold that it does.

This case arises from the conviction of Southern Union Company, a natural gas distributor.

A jury found the company guilty of violating a federal environmental statute.

The statute authorizes a fine of up to $50,000 for each day of violation.

The jury, however, did not specify the length of the violation.

Southern Union argued that the judge must, therefore, assume the violation was for just one day because any longer violation would expose the company to a larger maximum fine and thus amount to judicial fact finding in violation of Apprendi.

The District Court, however, imposed a fine of $6 million and a community service obligation of $12 million, amounts much larger than the one day penalty of $50,000.

The United States Courts of Appeals for the First Circuit recognized that this would violate Apprendi, if Apprendi applied to criminal fines but held that Apprendi does not so apply.

We disagree.

For purposes of Apprendi, there is no basis to distinguish criminal fines from imprisonment or the death sentence.

As we have said in Oregon versus Ice, the core concern of Apprendi is to ensure that the jury finds facts that weren't punishment for a specific statutory offense.

That concern applies just as much to fines as to imprisonment and the death sentence.

Like these other forms of punishment, fines are frequently imposed penal sanctions.

Their amounts are often determined by particular facts and they can be very substantial ranging into the tens of million of dollars or greater.

To allow judges to find facts that set the maximum amount of a fine would subvert Apprendi's purposes.

Our holding today is rooted in historical practice.

At the time of the founding, judges often have much discretion in choosing what fine to impose, but when as here, the amount of a fine depended on a particular fact, those facts were typically alleged in the indictment and proved to the jury.

This requirement manifested the common law rule that all accusations against the defendant that go into determining the punishment must be proved to the jury otherwise the defendant would be punished on the basis of facts that he has never been accused of.

The Government makes several policy arguments for why Apprendi should not apply to criminal fines and we reject them for reasons fully discussed in the opinion.

Because the First Circuit held that Apprendi does not apply to criminal fines, we reverse that Court's judgment and remand for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Justice Breyer has filed a dissenting opinion in this case in which Justices Kennedy and Justice Alito join.