In a very narrow plurality opinion, the U.S. Supreme Court recently decided to overrule a decision reached just 11 years ago, in the name of protecting defendants’ Sixth Amendment rights.
In the case, Alleyne v. US, 133 S. Ct. 2151, Sup. Ct. (2013), the Court examined the role of the jury and judge in proving elements versus enhancements for sentencing purposes.
In the case, Alleyne had been involved in a robbery involving a firearm. The underlying criminal statute stated that regarding sentencing, a conviction of the crime would result in a minimum of 5 years in prison. If a firearm was brandished during the commission of the crime, the minimum sentence would be bumped up to 7 years.
The jury convicted Alleyne, and indicated on the verdict form that he had used or carried a firearm in relation to the crime, but that it did not find that a firearm was brandished.
However, the judge recommended and later adopted the bumped up sentence, based on his opinion that the defendant brandished a firearm by a preponderance of the evidence, and that this finding was a sentencing factor, applicable to increase the defendant’s sentence. The defendant objected, on the basis that the judge’s finding violated his Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial. The District Court overruled the defendant’s objection, explaining that under prior case law, the brandishing was a sentencing factor that the court could find by a preponderance of evidence without violating the requirements of the Constitution. The Court of Appeals affirmed, and the defendant appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In a prior controlling opinion, Harris v. United States, 536 U.S. 545, (2002), the Court held that judicial factfinding which increases the mandatory minimum sentence for a crime is permissible under the Sixth Amendment.
However, in this decision, it concluded that the distinction set forth in Harris is inconsistent with its decision in Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466, (2000), and with the original meaning of the Sixth Amendment. Specifically, any fact which legally increases the mandatory minimum sentence of a crime, is an element that must be submitted to the jury for a determination beyond a reasonable doubt.
The decision in Harris was based upon the same statutory provision, and under the same circumstances. Namely, that the defendant was found guilty of the underlying crime by the jury, but not of having brandished a weapon. In Harris, the district court judge used the sentencing factor to find by a preponderance of the evidence that he was brandishing a weapon. Thus, the Court held that it was constitutional to do so, in Harris.
The Court then engaged in a discussion of criminal sentencing at common law, whereby crimes were defined by a series of elements, the requirement of each was necessary in order to convict the defendant, and all of which had a certain sentence attached to them. Therefore, it was for the jury to determine whether all of the elements had been satisfied, and then the judge’s sole role was to impose whatever the prescribed sentence was. For example, the Court cited one example of larceny being punishable by a fine of three times the value of stolen goods.
Thus, in those cases where a specific fact or element implicates a heightened sentence, that fact is an element of the underlying crime itself, rather than a factor to take into consideration by the judge. Specifically, regarding its prior decision in Harris, the Court found: “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.”
Thus, the Court vacated the Sixth Circuit’s judgment in regards to the defendant’s sentence, and remanded the case for resentencing consistent with the jury’s verdict.
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More Blog Posts:
Court of Appeals Ruling Affirms Prior Conviction Record Insufficient to Establish Identity, Boston Criminal Defense Lawyer Blog, published December 11, 2013
Massachusetts Appeals Court Affirms Requirement that Prosecution Must Prove All Elements Relating to Crimes For Which Jury Will Be Instructed at Trial, Boston Criminal Defense Lawyer Blog, published December 4, 2013