Apprendi v. New Jersey: A Watershed Decision with Potentially Far Reaching Implications for Sentencing Practices in Criminal Cases

Apprendi v. New Jersey: A Watershed Decision With Potentially Far Reaching Implications For Sentencing Practices in Criminal Cases On June 25, 2000, the Supreme Court announced its decision in Apprendi v. New Jersey 1 , the import of which went largely unnoticed for several weeks. Ultimately, by the end of the summer, the criminal defense community across the nation was abuzz with news of this decision and its potential impact. Appellate attorneys began scurrying to prepare supplemental submissions arguing to vacate clients sentences based upon Apprendi's 2 holding, and those attorneys who focus on sentencing issues began to speculate about possible shifts in the allocation of sentencing determinations from judge to jury. And prosecutors began to take note of how specifically indictments alleged the facts of the offense.

The Court held in Apprendi 3 that the it was unconstitutional for the trial court to enhance a sentence under a New Jersey hate crime statute 4 after the trial court found by a preponderance of the evidence that Charles C. Apprendi, Jr. (Petitioner) fell within the purview of the statute. The Court found that such a sentencing procedure violated Due Process concerns; the question of enhancement under the statute was one for the jury and not the court.

The dust has yet to settle, and the ramifications of Apprendi 5 have only begun to become clear; scores of rounds of litigation across the country will ensue before the breadth of Apprendi's 6 application will be certain. The straightforward, low end, Apprendi 7 interpretation embed itself into our criminal sentencing system? Will the high end approach embodied by Justice Thomas concurrence become the norm? Will a middle ground emerge, or will the Court abruptly rein in the controversy and sharply limit this holding? It will be years before the criminal defense community can be confident that the sentencing issue has settled.


On December 22, 1994, Petitioner fired several shots into the home of an African-American family that had recently moved into an all white suburb of New Jersey. Within an hour, he was arrested and admitted that he was the shooter. About three hours later, at 6:00 a.m., Petitioner made a statement, which he later retracted, indicating that he did not know the occupants but that he had shot into their house because of their race.

A grand jury returned a twenty-three count indictment alleging shootings on four different dates as well as unlawful possession of various weapons. None of the counts referred to the hate crime statute 8 or to any racial motive or bias on Petitioners part. The prosecution dismissed twenty counts and Petitioner pled guilty to three counts: two counts of second degree possession of a firearm for an unlawful purpose and one count of the third degree offense of unlawful possession of an antipersonnel bomb. The agreement provided that the sentence on the one third degree count would run concurrent with the sentences on the two second degree counts. If the judge did not apply the racial bias enhancement, the maximum for both counts would amount to 20 years aggregate. If the judge did apply the enhancement, the maximum for the two counts in aggregate would be thirty years, with a fifteen year period of parole ineligibility.

As part of the plea agreement, the State reserved the right to argue at sentencing for an enhanced sentence on the ground that the shooting was committed with racial bias, and Petitioner reserved the right to challenge the hate crime sentence enhancement as unconstitutional. At sentencing, the trial judge held an evidentiary hearing and subsequently concluded by a preponderance of the evidence that Petitioner's actions fell within the purview of the statute.

Petitioner appealed, alleging, inter alia, that the Due Process Clause 9 of the United States Constitution requires that such a finding of bias must be proven to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt in order for the sentencing enhancement to apply. The Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey upheld the enhanced sentence over dissent. 10 The New Jersey Supreme Court, although divided, upheld the decision.11


1. 120 S.Ct. 2348 (2000).

2. Id.

3. Id.

4. N.J. Stat. Ann. 2C:43-7(a)(3), 2C:44-3(e) (2000).

5. 120 S.Ct. 2348 (2000).

6. Id.

7. Id.

8. Supra at n.4.

9. United States Constitution

10. 304 N.J. Super. 147, 698 A.2d 1265 (1997). The appellate court relied upon McMillan v. Pennsylvania, 477 U.S. 79, 91 L. Ed. 2d 67 (1986) in finding that the intention of the New Jersey state legislature was that the hate crime enhancement was a sentencing factor and not an element of the underlying offense.

11. 159 N.J. 7, 731 A.2d 485 (1999).

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