Washington v. Recuenco

PETITIONER: Washington
RESPONDENT: Arturo R. Recuenco
LOCATION: Board of Immigration Appeals

DOCKET NO.: 05-83
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2006-2009)
LOWER COURT: Washington Supreme Court

CITATION: 548 US 212 (2006)
GRANTED: Oct 17, 2005
ARGUED: Apr 17, 2006
DECIDED: Jun 26, 2006

ADVOCATES:
Gregory C. Link - argued the cause for Respondent
James M. Whisman - Attorneys for Petitioner, Counsel of Record
Patricia A. Millett -

Facts of the case

Arturo Recuenco was convicted of second degree assault in Washington state court after the jury found that he had attacked his wife "with a deadly weapon." The trial court then applied a 3-year enhancement to his sentence based on its own finding that a firearm had been involved, even though the jury never specifically found that a gun was used. On appeal, the Supreme Court of Washington ruled that the enhancement was unconstitutional under Blakely v. Washington, 542 U.S. 296, a 2004 U.S. Supreme Court decision that held that only those factors found by a jury, not a judge, may be considered for sentencing enhancements. The court disagreed with Washington state's argument that, while a Sixth Amendment violation under Blakely had indeed occurred, that violation could be found legally harmless.

Question

Can a violation of Blakely v. Washington 's rule that all factors used in sentencing enhancements must be found by a jury, not a judge, be found legally harmless?

Media for Washington v. Recuenco

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - April 17, 2006 in Washington v. Recuenco

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 26, 2006 in Washington v. Recuenco

Clarence Thomas:

The second case I have to announce is No, 05-83, Washington versus Recuenco.

This case comes to us on a writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court of Washington.

Respondent was convicted of assault in the second degree, based on the jury’s finding that he assaulted his wife with a deadly weapon.

The trial court then applied a three-year firearm enhancement to respondent’s sentence, based on the Court’s own factual finding that the deadly weapon at issue was a firearm.

On direct appeal to the Washington Supreme Court, the State conceded that this enhancement to respondent’s sentence was imposed in violation of our decision in Blakely versus Washington, but argued that the error was harmless.

The Washington Supreme Court disagreed, holding that Blakely errors are structural in nature and, thus, can never be harmless and vacated respondent’s sentence.

In an opinion filed with the Clerk today, we reverse the judgment of the Supreme Court of Washington.

Most Constitutional errors are subject to harmless-error analysis.

An error is structural and requires automatic reversal only when it, “necessarily renders a criminal trial fundamentally unfair or an unreliable vehicle for determining guilt or innocence”.

In Neder versus United States, we determined that a trial court’s failure to require a jury to find an element of an offense was not structural error.

This case is controlled by Neder.

The only difference between Neder and this case is that in Neder the jury failed to find an element of the offense, while in the present case the jury failed to find a sentencing factor.

In Apprendi versus New Jersey we recognized that, “any possible distinction between an element of an offense and a sentencing factor was unknown to the practice of criminal indictment, trial by jury and judgment by jury as it existed during the year surrounding our nation’s founding”.

Accordingly, failure to prove a sentencing factor to a jury, like failure to prove an element of an offense to a jury, is not structural error.

We therefore reverse the judgment of the Supreme Court of Washington and remand the case for further proceedings not inconsistent with our opinion.

Justice Kennedy has filed a concurring opinion; Justice Stevens has filed a dissenting opinion; Justice Ginsburg has filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Stevens has joined.