The case of Blakely v. Washington decided in 2004, significantly changed New York and Federal sentencing and substantially altered the way experienced criminal defense lawyers handled their most serious cases. It also led to the change in the once mandatory federal sentencing guidelines to a system that is now now merely advisory.

In Blakely v. Washington, 542 U.S. 296, 124 S.Ct. 2531, Ralph Blakely pleaded guilty in a Washington State Superior Court to kidnapping his estranged wife. The statutory maximum for the offense Blakely pleaded guilty to was 53 months. The sentencing judge, however, sentenced Blakely to 90 months – more than three years above the 53 month maximum – finding that Blakely acted with deliberate cruelty. Note, Blakely never admitted to acting with deliberate cruelty nor did a jury find that he did so beyond a reasonable doubt.

Blakely appealed to the Washington Court of Appeals which rejected his argument that Washington’s sentencing procedure which allowed sentence enhancements above the statutory maximum based upon judicial determinations deprived him of his federal constitutional right to have all facts legally essential to his sentence determined by a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. The Washington Supreme Court denied discretionary review. The United Supreme Court granted certiorari (agreed to hear the case) and ultimately found the Washington State sentencing procedure unconstitutional.

The issue before the United States Supreme Court was whether a state judge may consider facts, that were not admitted by the defendant nor found by a jury beyond a reasonable doubt, to enhance the defendant’s sentence beyond the maximum sentence the judge may have imposed based upon facts admitted by the defendant or found by a jury beyond a reasonable doubt.

In striking down the Washington State sentencing procedure, the United States Supreme Court held that, other than the fact of a prior conviction, any fact that increases the penalty for a crime beyond the prescribed statutory maximum must be submitted to a jury, and proved beyond a reasonable doubt. To allow otherwise would violate a defendant’s Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury. Where a defendant, such as Blakely, pleads guilty, the State may seek judicial sentence enhancements only if the defendant either stipulates to the relevant facts or consents to judicial fact-finding.

It is of critical importance to note that the statutory maximum is not necessarily the absolute maximum sentence that may be imposed but instead is the maximum sentence that may be imposed within the authorized sentencing range based upon the admitted or proven facts. In Blakely for example, Washington State argued that the challenged sentencing procedure was constitutional because a judge could never go above the statutory maximum based upon judicial findings but could only increase the sentence within the statutorily authorized range.

The Supreme Court rejected this argument noting that had Blakely been sentenced to 90 months based solely upon the admitted facts, the sentence would have been reversed even though it was less than the maximum 10 years.

If you have any questions regarding any sentencing issue, are awaiting sentencing or want to file a criminal appeal of your conviction or sentence feel free to contact Tilem & Campbell toll free at 1-877-377-8666 or visit us on the web at

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