In its 2000 decision in Apprendi v. New Jersey, the Supreme Court held that any fact that increases the maximum term of incarceration faced by a criminal defendant must be proved to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. Prior to Apprendi, judges found many of those facts in sentencing, after the jury was dismissed. Today, in Southern Union Co. v. United States, the Court extended Apprendi's rule to facts determining the maximum amount of a criminal fine.
In Southern Union, the defendant was found guilty of a criminal violation of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act ("RCRA") for improperly storing mercury. RCRA imposes a maximum fine of $50,000 per day for such a violation. After the company was convicted, prosecutors argued for a maximum fine of $38.1 million, asserting that the company had improperly stored mercury for 762 days. However, the jury had not been asked to determine the precise duration of the violation, and had been told that a violation of only one day was sufficient for conviction. Therefore, Southern Union argued, Apprendi permitted a maximum fine of $50,000. The Supreme Court agreed, in a decision that will have a particularly significant effect on corporate criminal defendants, who often plead guilty in the face of potentially ruinous fines. By requiring the government to prove to the jury every fact necessary to support a fine, Southern Union will give corporations charged with crimes new leverage, both in plea bargaining and at trial.