Prosecutors who file more serious charges against defendants after they request a jury trial are not automatically subject to a "presumption of prosecutorial vindictiveness," the Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
In an opinion written by Justice John Paul Stevens, the court ruled, 6 to 3, that the risk of prosecutors imposing a penalty of more severe charges on defendants who assert their right to a jury trial is too low to make that presumption.
"A prosecutor should remain free before trial to exercise the broad discretion entrusted to him to determine the extent of the social interest in prosecution," Stevens said. "An initial decision should not freeze future conduct."
The ruling came in the case of Learley Reed Goodwin, who attempted to flee police after being stopped for speeding on the Baltimore-Washington Parkway and was charged with various misdemeanors and petty offenses.
After Goodwin insisted on a trial by jury rather than appear before a federal magistrate, his case was transferred to a prosecutor, who obtained a four-count felony and misdemeanor indictment.
Goodwin was then convicted on the felony count and one misdemeanor count.
William J. Brennan Jr. and Thurgood Marshall dissented, arguing that prosecutors "would almost always prefer" that defendants waive their "troublesome" right to jury trial, and that a prosecutor's elevation of charges against a defendant who refuses to do so "manifestly poses a realistic likelihood of vindictiveness."
Justice Harry A. Blackmun agreed with the dissenters that there should be an automatic presumption of vindictiveness in such circumstances. But, Blackmun said, the government had adequately "dispelled the appearance of vindictiveness" in the case.
In another action the court continued a trend of deferring to states by sharply limiting the power of federal courts to declare state taxes unconstitutional.
Justice Sandra D. O'Connor, in a 7-to-2 opinion, held that the federal Tax Injunction Act bars U.S. courts from declaring state taxes unconstitutional and from enjoining their collection.
The opinion overturned a lower court ruling that California cannot constitutionally require religious schools unaffiliated with a church to pay unemployment taxes. O'Connor avoided the issue of whether such taxes are prohibited by the First Amendment.