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'If it Suffices to Accuse': United States V. Watts and the Reassessment of Acquittals

28 Pages Posted: 16 Sep 2010  

Elizabeth E. Joh

University of California, Davis - School of Law

Date Written: 1999


Despite sweeping changes, few courts or commentators have reflected upon the communicative effects of the United States Sentencing Guidelines. Enacted in 1984, the Sentencing Guidelines represent the most significant modem alteration of federal sentencing.

The extensive commentary on the Sentencing Guidelines tends to focus on the constitutional and political issues surrounding their implementation. If punishment is constitutive of social beliefs, however, current sentencing practices merit examination. Though the Supreme Court's decisions have not been illuminating in this regard, a 1997 case that centered on a controversial Sentencing Guidelines practice provides a compelling opportunity to examine the intersection of sentencing and its communicative effects. United States v. Watts decided whether federal judges should consider acquitted conduct under the Guidelines. The Watts decision received little attention, and those who followed the development of the Sentencing Guidelines were probably not surprised by the outcome of the decision. The lack of critical engagement is not, however, indicative of the decision's significance; Watts underscores the manner in which the communicative force of current sentencing practices is overlooked.

Keywords: real offense sentencing, punishment, acquittal, sentencing

Suggested Citation

Joh, Elizabeth E., 'If it Suffices to Accuse': United States V. Watts and the Reassessment of Acquittals (1999). New York University Law Review, Vol. 74, No. 887, 1999. Available at SSRN:

Elizabeth E. Joh (Contact Author)

University of California, Davis - School of Law ( email )

400 Mrak Hall Drive
Davis, CA 95616-5201
United States

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