Lewis v. United States (1996)

U.S. Supreme Court

Lewis v. United States, 518 U.S. 322 (1996)


JUSTICE O’CONNOR delivered the opinion of the Court. 

This case presents the question whether a defendant who is prosecuted in a single proceeding for multiple petty offenses has a constitutional right to a jury trial where the aggregate prison term authorized for the offenses exceeds six months. We are also asked to decide whether a defendant who would otherwise have a constitutional right to a jury trial may be denied that right because the presiding judge has made a pretrial commitment that the aggregate sentence imposed will not exceed six months.

We conclude that no jury trial right exists where a defendant is prosecuted for multiple petty offenses. The Sixth Amendment’s guarantee of the right to a jury trial does not extend to petty offenses, and its scope does not change where a defendant faces a potential aggregate prison term in excess of six months for petty offenses charged….

Petitioner Ray Lewis was a mail handler for the United States Postal Service. One day, postal inspectors saw him open several pieces of mail and pocket the contents. The next day, the inspectors routed “test” mail, containing marked currency, through petitioner’s station. After seeing petitioner open the mail and remove the currency, the inspectors arrested him. Petitioner was charged with two counts of obstructing the mail, in violation of 18 U. S. C. § 170l. Each count carried a maximum authorized prison sentence of six months. Petitioner requested a jury, but the Magistrate Judge granted the Government’s motion for a bench trial. She explained that because she would not, under any circumstances, sentence petitioner to more than six months’ imprisonment, he was not entitled to a jury trial.


The Sixth Amendment guarantees that “[i]n all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed …. ” It is well established that the Sixth Amendment, like the common law, reserves this jury trial right for prosecutions of serious offenses, and that “there is a category of petty crimes or offenses which is not subject to the Sixth Amendment jury trial provision.” Duncan v. Louisiana, 391 U. S. 145, 159 (1968).


An offense carrying a maximum prison term of six months or less is presumed petty, unless the legislature has authorized additional statutory penalties so severe as to indicate that the legislature considered the offense serious. Id., at 543; Codispoti v. Pennsylvania, 418 U. S. 506, 512 (1974).

Here, the maximum authorized penalty for obstruction of mail is six months’ imprisonment-a penalty that presumptively places the offense in the “petty” category. We face the question whether petitioner is nevertheless entitled to a jury trial, because he was tried in a single proceeding for two counts of the petty offense so that the potential aggregated penalty is 12 months’ imprisonment.

Petitioner argues that, where a defendant is charged with multiple petty offenses in a single prosecution, the Sixth Amendment requires that the aggregate potential penalty be the basis for determining whether a jury trial is required.

Although each offense charged here was petty, petitioner faced a potential penalty of more than six months’ imprisonment; and, of course, if any offense charged had authorized more than six months’ imprisonment, he would have been entitled to a jury trial. The Court must look to the aggregate potential prison term to determine the existence of the jury trial right, petitioner contends, not to the “petty” character of the offenses charged.

We disagree. The Sixth Amendment reserves the jury trial right to defendants accused of serious crimes. As set forth above, we determine whether an offense is serious by looking to the judgment of the legislature, primarily as expressed in the maximum authorized term of imprisonment. Here, by setting the maximum authorized prison term at six months, the Legislature categorized the offense of obstructing the mail as petty. The fact that petitioner was charged with two counts of a petty offense does not revise the legislative judgment as to the gravity of that particular offense, nor does it transform the petty offense into a serious one, to which the jury trial right would apply.


JUSTICE KENNEDY, with whom JUSTICE BREYER joins, concurring in the judgment.

This petitioner had no constitutional right to a jury trial because from the outset it was settled that he could be sentenced to no more than six months’ imprisonment for his combined petty offenses. The particular outcome, however, should not obscure the greater consequence of today’s unfortunate decision. The Court holds that a criminal defendant may be convicted of innumerable offenses in one proceeding and sentenced to any number of years’ imprisonment, all without benefit of a jury trial, so long as no one of the offenses considered alone is punishable by more than six months in prison. The holding both in its doctrinal formulation and in its practical effect is one of the most serious incursions on the right to jury trial in the Court’s history, and it cannot be squared with our precedents. The Sixth Amendment guarantees a jury trial to a defendant charged with a serious crime. Duncan v. Louisiana, 391 U. S. 145, 159 (1968). Serious crimes, for purposes of the Sixth Amendment, are defined to include any offense which carries a maximum penalty of more than six months in prison; the right to jury trial attaches to those crimes regardless of the sentence in fact imposed. Id., at 159-160. This doctrine is not questioned here, but it does not define the outer limits of the right to trial by jury. Our cases establish a further proposition: The right to jury trial extends as well to a defendant who is sentenced in one proceeding to more than six months’ imprisonment. Codispoti v. Pennsylvania, 418 U. S. 506 (1974); Taylor v. Hayes, 418 U. S. 488 (1974). To be more specific, a defendant is entitled to a jury if tried in a single proceeding for more than one petty offense when the combined sentences will exceed six months’ imprisonment; taken together, the crimes then are considered serious for constitutional purposes, even if each is petty by itself,…


The significance of the Court’s decision quite transcends the peculations of Ray Lewis, the petitioner here, who twice filched from the mails. The decision affects more than repeat violators of traffic laws, persons accused of public drunkenness, persons who persist in breaches of the peace, and the wide range of eccentrics capable of disturbing the quiet enjoyment of life by others. Just as alarming is the threat the Court’s holding poses to millions of persons in agriculture, manufacturing, and trade who must comply with minute administrative regulations, many of them carrying a jail term of six months or less. Violations of these sorts of rules often involve repeated, discrete acts which can result in potential liability of years of imprisonment. See, e. g., 16 U. S. C. § 707 (violation of migratory bird treaties, laws, and regulations); 29 U. S. C. § 216 (penalties under Fair Labor Standards Act); 36 CFR § 1.3 (1995) (violation of National Park Service regulations); id., § 261.1b (violation of Forest Service prohibitions); id., § 327.25 (violation of Army Corps of Engineers water resource development project regulations); 43 CFR §8351.1-1(b) (1995) (violation of Bureau of Land management regulations under National Trails System Act of 1968). Still, under the Court’s holding it makes no difference whether a defendant is sentenced to a year in prison or for that matter to 20 years: As long as no single violation charged is punishable by more than six months, the defendant has no right to a jury.


When a defendant’s liberty is put at great risk in a trial, he is entitled to have the trial conducted to a jury. This principle lies at the heart of the Sixth Amendment. The Court does grave injury to the Amendment by allowing a defendant to suffer a prison term of any length after a single trial before a single judge and without the protection of a jury. I join only the Court’s judgment.

JUSTICE STEVENS, with whom JUSTICE GINSBURG joins, dissenting.

….The majority, relying exclusively on cases in which the defendant was tried for a single offense, extends a rule designed with those cases in mind to the wholly dissimilar circumstance in which the prosecution concerns multiple offenses. I agree with JUSTICE KENNEDY to the extent he would hold that a prosecution which exposes the accused to a sentence of imprisonment longer than six months, whether for a single offense or for a series of offenses, is sufficiently serious to confer on the defendant the right to demand a jury. See ante, at 335-337.

Unlike JUSTICE KENNEDY, however, I believe that the right to a jury trial attaches when the prosecution begins.  I do not quarrel with the established view that only defendants whose alleged misconduct is deemed serious by the legislature are entitled to be judged by a jury. But in my opinion, the legislature’s determination of the severity of the charges against a defendant is properly measured by the maximum sentence authorized for the prosecution as a whole. The text of the Sixth Amendment supports this interpretation by referring expressly to “criminal prosecutions.”


All agree that a judge may not strip a defendant of the right to a jury trial for a serious crime by promising a sentence of six months or less. …Because the right attaches at the moment of prosecution, a judge may not deprive a defendant of a jury trial by making a pretrial determination that the crimes charged will not warrant a sentence exceeding six months. 


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