This SC Supreme Court decision demonstrates how important every detail can be in a criminal case. Here, the trial judge sentenced the defendant to a statutorily required 25 years in prison and a $100,000 fine for trafficking cocaine based upon an amount of cocaine not proven by the State. However, on appeal, it was concluded that the jury was charged inappropriately and could only support a greatly reduced sentence of 3-10 years and a $25,000 fine. Every nuance in a criminal case can make all the difference. Better make sure your defense attorney investigates every aspect of your case and knows how to take full advantage at trial. There is too much at stake to risk an inexperienced lawyer.

At Reeves, Aiken & Hightower LLP, our attorneys have over 70 years of combined trial experience in both civil and criminal courts.  We are available by mobile phone in the evenings, on weekends, and even holidays. Our lawyers are licensed in both South Carolina and North Carolina and are effective criminal trial attorneys.  We are not afraid to go to Court and often do. Tyler Burns is a former 16th Circuit (York County) prosecutor, and Art Aiken is a accomplished criminal attorney who has tried virtually every type of criminal case in both state and federal courts. And, Bea Hightower is a former Richland County public defender in Columbia. We welcome an opportunity to sit down and personally review your case. Compare our attorneys’ credentials and experience to any other law firm. Then call us for a private consultation. www.rjrlaw.com

In The Supreme Court

Gina L. Dervin, Petitioner,


State of South Carolina, Respondent.


Appeal From Kershaw County
L. Casey Manning, Circuit Court Judge

Opinion No.  26755
Submitted November 18, 2009 – Filed December 21, 2009


Appellate Defender Kathrine H. Hudgins, of South Carolina Commission on Indigent Defense, of Columbia, for Petitioner.

Attorney General Henry Dargan McMaster, Chief Deputy Attorney General John W. McIntosh, Assistant Deputy Attorney General Salley W. Elliott, Assistant Attorney General Brian T. Petrano, all of Columbia, for Respondent.

JUSTICE WALLER: We granted a writ of certiorari to perform an Austin v. State  review of the denial of Petitioner Gina Dervin’s application for post conviction relief (PCR).  We reverse and remand for resentencing.


Dervin was indicted for trafficking cocaine.   The indictment alleged she had trafficked between 200-400 grams of cocaine.  During her trial, the court twice instructed the jury that Dervin could be convicted of trafficking if she was in actual or constructive possession of ten grams or more of cocaine.  The jury found her guilty.

At sentencing, Dervin requested the judge sentence her to the minimum possible sentence, to which the court responded:

Trafficking in cocaine — and in this case trafficking in cocaine in a substantial amount — the amount in this case is from 200 grams – more than 200 grams but less than 400 grams.   And that I will tell you is the second highest category or volume of traffic of cocaine provided for in the trafficking statute. . . .

Our Legislature has mandated a sentence in a trafficking case, and that is a mandatory 25-year sentence and a mandatory $100,000 fine.  So I have no choice other than to impose the sentence required by law.

Accordingly, Dervin was sentenced to twenty-five years and a $100,000 fine for trafficking.  The Court of Appeals affirmed her convictions and sentences on direct appeal.  State v. Dervin, Op. No. 2003-UP-484 (S.C. Ct. App. filed August 20, 2003).

Dervin’s first PCR application was denied, and no appeal was filed.  Dervin filed this subsequent PCR application in May 2007, alleging PCR counsel was ineffective in failing to appeal the denial of the first PCR application.   The court held Dervin was entitled to a belated review of the denial of her first application pursuant to Austin v. State, 305 S.C. 453, 409 S.E.2d 395 (1991), and we granted certiorari.


Was trial counsel ineffective in failing to object to Dervin’s twenty-five year sentence for trafficking more than 200 grams of cocaine when the trial judge only charged the jury to consider whether petitioner was guilty of trafficking ten or more grams of cocaine?


Dervin contends trial counsel was ineffective in failing to object to imposition of a twenty-five year sentence for trafficking between 200-400 grams of cocaine, because the jury was only required to determine she trafficked ten or more grams of cocaine, but that it did not necessarily determine she possessed over 200 grams.  Dervin contends the United States Supreme Court’s decisions inApprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466 (2000) and Blakely v. Washington, 542 U.S. 296 (2004) require the amount of drugs to be submitted to the jury to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.  We agree.

In Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466, 490, 120 S.Ct. 2348, 2362-63, 147 L.Ed.2d 435 (2000), the United State Supreme Court held that “[o]ther 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.”  See also Blakely v. Washington, 542 U.S. 296, 124 S.Ct. 2531, 159 L.Ed.2d 403 (2004) (court explained that “statutory maximum” for Apprendi purposes is the maximum sentence a judge may impose solely on the basis of the facts reflected in the jury verdict or admitted by the defendant).

The state asserts there is no Apprendi violation because the twenty-five year sentence imposed here is within the statutory maximum.  While the state is correct in asserting that  S.C. Code Ann. § 44-53-370(e)(2)(e) permits up to a thirty year sentence and a $200,000 fine for trafficking over 400 grams of cocaine, the only amount actually charged to the jury here was that it could convict Dervin if it found she possessed “more than 10 grams.”  There is no indication in the jury’s verdict that it found anything more than this amount.  Accordingly, given the trial court’s instruction, the applicable sentence for possession of ten grams falls under § 44-53-370(e)(2)(a)(1) and is a maximum of ten years and a $25,000 fine.  Accord United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220 (2005) (statutory maximum for Apprendi purposes is the maximum sentence a judge may impose solely on the basis of the facts reflected in the jury verdict or admitted by the defendant).

Due process requires the State to prove every element of a criminal offense beyond a reasonable doubt.  State v. Brown, 360 S.C. 581, 602 S.E.2d 392 (2004) (citing In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358 (1970)).  A defendant, therefore, cannot “be exposed to a greater punishment than that authorized by the jury’s guilty verdict.”  United States v. Page, 232 F.3d 536, 543 (6th Cir. 2000).

In Blakely v. Washington, 542 U.S. 296, 124 S.Ct. 2531, 159 L.Ed.2d 403 (2004), the Supreme Court reiterated its holding inApprendi that, under the Sixth Amendment, all facts used to increase a defendant’s sentence beyond the statutory maximum must be charged and proven to a jury.   542 U.S. at —-, 124 S.Ct. at 2536.  The relevant “statutory maximum” is not the maximum sentence a judge may impose after finding additional facts, but the maximum he may impose without any additional findings. Simpson v. United States, 376 F.3d 679 (7th Cir. 2004).  See also United States v. Booker, 375 F.3d 508  (7th Cir. 2004).  UnderBlakely, the relevant statutory maximum “is the maximum sentence a judge may impose solely on the basis of facts reflected in the jury verdict or admitted by the defendant.” 542 U.S. at 303-304, 124 S.Ct. at 2537.

We find the maximum permissible sentence here, pursuant to Apprendi and Blakely, is controlled by the amount which was specifically submitted to the jury, i.e., that it could convict Dervin of trafficking if it believed she possessed ten or more grams of cocaine.  Accordingly, the maximum sentence in the present case should have been that for trafficking between 10-28 grams, which is 3-10 years, and a $25,000 fine.  Therefore, the trial court’s imposition of a twenty-five year sentence for trafficking between 200-400 grams of cocaine violated Apprendi because the jury did not find beyond a reasonable doubt that Dervin possessed that amount of cocaine.  Further, we find counsel was ineffective in failing to object to impostion of a 25 year sentence.  We reverse the denial of PCR and remand for resentencing.[1]     



[1]  Although an Apprendi error may be deemed harmless, Washington v. Recuenco, 548 U.S. 212 (2006), we do not find the error harmless in the present case.