Earlier today, the United States Supreme Court issued its opinion in Alleyne v. United States. The Court sought to answer the question: when an element of a crime raises the mandatory minimum sentence for that crime, must the jury find the defendant guilty of that element beyond a reasonable doubt before the mandatory minimum sentence may be imposed? In a 5-4 decision, the Court found that a jury must determine the element has been proven before the mandatory minimum may be increased. Justice Thomas authored the majority opinion, joined by Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan. Justices Sotomayor and Breyer wrote concurring opinions. Chief Justice Roberts wrote a dissenting opinion joined by Justices Scalia and Kennedy, and Justice Alito also wrote a dissenting opinion.
At issue in this case were the inconsistent rulings from the Supreme Court in the past regarding facts of a crime that can increase either the mandatory minimum or statutory maximum sentence. In Apprendi v. New Jersey (2000), the Court ruled that elements of a crime that increase a defendant’s statutory maximum sentence must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, and a jury must find these facts exist before the statutory maximum sentence may be increased. Two years later, the Supreme Court issued its opinion in Harris v. United States (2002). In Harris, the Court held that a jury does not need to find the defendant guilty of an element beyond a reasonable doubt before the mandatory minimum sentence may be increased. Instead, the only requisite proof would be a finding of the fact at issue by a preponderance of the evidence by the sentencing judge.
Alleyne reverses Harris and applies Apprendi to mandatory minimum sentence increases. In Alleyne, petitioner Allen Ryan Alleyne robbed a store manager with a gun. He was charged with multiple federal offenses, including Robbery Affecting Interstate Commerce and Using Or Carrying A Firearm In Relation To A Crime Of Violence. The latter crime carries with it a mandatory minimum sentence of five years if the perpetrator has a gun on his person and seven years if the gun is brandished.
At trial, the jury indicated that they had found him guilty of committing the crime while possessing the gun, but did not find him guilty of actually brandishing it. Given that brandishing the firearm is clearly an element of the latter crime, and the jury only found him guilty of possessing it, it follows that his minimum sentence should have been five years. The sentencing judge, however, decided to ignore the jury’s finding of fact and find, for purposes of sentencing, that he was brandishing the weapon. As a result, the court subsequently increased his minimum sentence from five years to seven years.
Alleyne objected to the sentence, arguing that the sentencing judge’s finding violated his Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial. The District Court overruled this objection. Alleyne appealed and the Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court’s ruling, holding that Harris was dispositive of the issue. Alleyne finally appealed to the United States Supreme Court which granted certiorari.
In a rare move, the Supreme Court reversed its decision in Harris v. United States. Harris and Apprendi are virtually identical cases with only a trivial distinction, i.e., increasing the mandatory minimum vs. the statutory maximum. As Apprendi became settled law over time, doubts were cast as to whether the decision in Harris would survive. Finally came Alleyne, which squarely addresses the issue of whether or not Harris is constitutional. In his majority opinion, Justice Thomas opined that “because there is no basis in principle or logic to distinguish facts that raise the maximum from those that increase the minimum, Harris was inconsistent with Apprendi. It is, accordingly, overruled.”
The Supreme Court’s decision in Alleyne is a major victory for criminal defense and individual rights, and rightly reverses an improper ruling from the past. Let us know what your thoughts are in the comment section.