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U.S. Supreme Court holds that a fact that increases the minimum mandatory sentence for a crime must be submitted to the jury

Allen Ryan Alleyne v. United States, USSC No. 11-9335, 6/17/13

United States Supreme Court decision, vacating and remanding United States v. Alleyne, No. 11-4208 (4th Cir. Dec. 15, 2011)

Since Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466 (2000), a defendant has had the right to demand the jury find beyond a reasonable doubt any fact that increases the maximum sentence for a crime. Apprendi held that a fact which increases the penalty is an “element” of the criminal offense, and the Sixth Amendment requires all offense elements to be proven to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. But the Court also held, in Harris v. United States, 536 U.S. 545 (2002), that a defendant had no right to a jury finding of facts that increased mandatory minimums. Are these holdings consistent? The Court holds they are not, and Apprendi must prevail:

Harris drew a distinction between facts that increase the statutory maximum and facts that increase only the mandatory minimum. We conclude that this distinction is inconsistent with our decision in Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U. S. 466 (2000), and with the original meaning of the Sixth Amendment. Any fact that, by law, increases the penalty for a crime is an “element” that must be submitted to the jury and found beyond a reasonable doubt. See id., at 483, n. 10, 490. Mandatory minimum sentences increase the penalty for a crime. It follows, then, that any fact that increases the mandatory minimum is an “element” that must be submitted to the jury. Accordingly, Harris is overruled. (Slip op. at 1-2).

The Court concludes “there is no basis in principle or logic to distinguish facts that raise the maximum from those that increase the minimum.” (Slip op. at 15). It is indisputable, the Court says, that a fact triggering a mandatory minimum alters the prescribed range of sentences to which a criminal defendant is exposed, for just as the maximum penalty marks the outer boundary of the range, so the minimum marks its floor. (Slip op. at 11). Because the legally prescribed range is the penalty affixed to the crime, a fact increasing either end of the range produces a new penalty and constitutes an ingredient of the offense:

Elevating the low-end of a sentencing range heightens the loss of liberty associated with the crime: the defendant’s “expected punishment has increased as a result of the narrowed range” and “the prosecution is empowered, by invoking the mandatory minimum, to require the judge to impose a higher punishment than he might wish.” Apprendi, supra, at 522 (THOMAS, J., concurring). … This reality demonstrates that the core crime and the fact triggering the mandatory minimum sentence together constitute a new, aggravated crime, each element of which must be submitted to the jury…. (Slip op. at 12).

Alleyne was convicted by a jury of robbery and using or carrying a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence, 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1)(A), which carried a five-year minimum sentence and a maximum of life. The jury found he had used a firearm, but not that he had “brandished” it, a fact which upped the minimum sentence to seven years. The judge concluded he had brandished the gun and, citing Harris to overrule Alleyne’s objection, imposed a seven year sentence. (Slip op. at 2-3). Given the Court’s holding, Alleyne is now entitled to resentencing “consistent with the jury’s verdict.” (Slip op. at 17).

That could, of course, result in another seven year sentence, which is the point of the dissent by the Chief Justice (joined by Scalia and Kennedy), who believes no additional fact finding is necessary in this situation because the jury’s finding allowed a sentence anywhere in the range from five years to life, and seven years is within that range. Justice Alito also dissented, saying if any precedent ought to be reconsidered it is Apprendi, as there are “strong reasons” to doubt that case’s analysis of the original understanding of the jury trial right. Justice Breyer also disagrees with Apprendi , but he concurs in the judgment because that case “has now defined the relevant legal regime for an additional decade…, the law should no longer tolerate the anomaly that the Apprendi/Harris distinction creates.” (Concur. at 1). This 5-4 vote suggests there’s still some room for debate about further extensions of Apprendi.

Practitioners handling federal cases will be immediately affected by this ruling, as the federal minimum mandatory sentencing schemes like the one applied to Alleyne will now be subject to additional jury findings. (The knowledgeable and expert Doug Berman has more on the possible impact of the decision on federal sentencing law.) State criminal cases are not immediately affected, as our current minimum mandatory sentences (most of which are in §§ 939.616 to 939.619) are tied to specific offenses, so proof of the basic elements of the offense will carry the minimum sentence with no additional jury findings needed.

{ 1 comment… add one }
  • Robert R. Henak June 19, 2013, 8:49 am

    Just to clarify, there still is no constitutional requirement under Apprendi that the jury find the existence of prior convictions used to enhance a sentence. Almendarez-Torres v. United States, 523 U.S. 224, 118 S.Ct. 1219, 140 L.Ed.2d 350 (1998).

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