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How Creative Can Judges Be With Sentencing?

By Laura Temme, Esq. | Last updated on

We're all in favor of a delicious burrito bowl. But watching the video of an Ohio woman hurling her freshly made Chipotle bowl into a restaurant employee's face is enough to put anyone off their lunch.

Earlier this month, the 39-year-old Chipotle chucker was found guilty of assault and received a unique punishment: One month in jail and two months of work in a fast-food restaurant.

The sentence seemed to strike a chord with many who have worked in food service or retail jobs and dealt with outrageous customer behavior (this writer included). It's also a good example of the leeway judges often have to choose a punishment that fits a given crime.

How Do Judges Decide on a Sentence?

State and federal courts can't create a criminal sentence out of thin air. Criminal statutes provide sentencing guidelines to serve as a baseline. These statutes will usually classify different criminal offenses and include scales of severity, along with suggested punishments.

Sometimes, the statute defining a given crime also provides a required minimum sentence. This is often the case for crimes committed against certain people, such as police officers.

In Ohio, simple assault is a first-degree misdemeanor. The state's sentencing guidelines provide that unless the criminal statute imposes a specific punishment, a judge has the discretion to determine the most appropriate sentence. This means they have room to get creative as long as they stay within a few general parameters.

State law requires judges to consider the following in sentencing:

  • The impact of the offense on the victim
  • The need to change the offender's behavior
  • Rehabilitating the offender
  • Providing restitution to the victim, the public, or both

Judges can tailor the conditions of someone's sentence or probation to the crime itself. For example, someone convicted of cyberbullying might be ordered to suspend or delete their social media accounts. As long as the judge stays away from things deemed cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment, many conditions are fair game.

Alternative Sentencing

Judges can (and often do) order an alternative sentence instead of jail time. They might require community service, a fine, or some combination. They can also issue a suspended sentence, where the judge orders jail time but allows the offender to serve it on probation. This is common in cases where they don't view the offender as a threat to the community.

A sentence can also be partially suspended — in the Chipotle assault case, the full sentence was 180 days in jail, but the judge suspended half of that time. However, if the defendant does not comply with the terms of her sentence, she could end up behind bars for the full 180 days.

Sentencing Hearings

Criminal cases have a separate hearing for sentencing, where the defendant (or their attorney) can make their case to the judge for a certain sentence. The judge might ask questions to gauge whether the offender understands the impact their actions had on the victim or the community.

In the case of the flying Chipotle bowl, Judge Timothy Galligan seemed skeptical that the defendant felt much remorse about her antics at the restaurant.

"You didn't get your burrito bowl the way you like it, and this is how you respond?" he asked. The defendant responded that the food she'd been handed looked "disgusting."

"I'll bet you're not gonna be happy with the food you're about to get in jail," Judge Gilligan said.

In the end, Judge Gilligan gave the defendant a choice: Serve 90 days in jail, or work in fast food 20 hours a week for 60 days and endure only one month in jail.

"I'd like to walk in her shoes," she said. Let's hope she learns a thing or two.

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