The following story was originally published in the July 2013 edition of Upon Further Review, a publication of the Philadelphia Bar Association.
United States Supreme Court Rules that Facts Triggering Mandatory-Minimum Sentences Are Elements of a Criminal Offense in Alleyne v. United States
Brad V. Shuttleworth, Esq. on 07/18/2013
In 2000, the United States Supreme Court decided Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466 (2000), which held that any fact increasing the maximum term of imprisonment for a crime must be found beyond all reasonable doubt, and not by a judge by a preponderance of evidence at sentencing. In Apprendi, the defendant was sentenced to 12 years’ imprisonment under a New Jersey Statute that increased the maximum term of imprisonment from 10 years to 20 years if the trial judge found that the defendant committed the crime with racial bias. The trial judge in Apprendi found the fact of racial bias by a preponderance of the evidence at sentencing, which the Supreme Court found to violate the Sixth Amendment.
Then, in 2002, the United States Supreme Court refused to apply Apprendi to facts that increase mandatory-minimum sentences in Harris v. United States, 536 U.S. 545 (2002). It held that a judicial finding of facts triggering a mandatory-minimum do not implicate the Sixth Amendment – that is, it found that a jury does not have to find a fact triggering a mandatory beyond all reasonable doubt, but the judge may do so by a preponderance of evidence at sentencing. The Harris court was faced with a case where the defendant was charged under 18 U.S.C. Sec. 924(c)(1)(A), with carrying a firearm in the course of committing a crime of violence or drug trafficking crime. The defendant was found guilty by a jury at trial of carrying a firearm in the course of committing a drug trafficking crime, which, in itself, carries a mandatory-minimum sentence of five years imprisonment. However, the trial court, at sentencing, imposed a seven year mandatory minimum under Section 924(c)(1)(A)(ii), which requires such a mandatory sentence if the firearm is brandished during the crime.
Now, the United States Supreme Court has decided Alleyne v. United States, 570 U.S. ___ (2013), 457 Fed. Appx. 348 (U.S., 11-9335, June 17, 2013), overruling Harris, and applying Apprendi to mandatory-minimum sentences. The Supreme Court in Alleyne had the opportunity to analyze the very same mandatory-minimum statute at issue in Harris, 18 U.S.C. 924(c)(1)(A). The critical facts are straightforward and few.
The jury found Alleyne guilty, and indicated on a verdict sheet that he used or carried a firearm during the commission of a crime of violence, which would mandate a minimum five year sentence, but it did not indicate a finding that the firearm was brandished, which would mandate a minimum seven year sentence. Over objection by the defendant, the trial court sentenced the defendant to seven years’ imprisonment based upon a finding that a firearm was brandished during the commission of the offense. The trial court’s ruling explained that it based its decision on Harris, holding that brandishing was a mere sentencing factor that the trial court could find by a preponderance of evidence without violating the Sixth Amendment. The Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court.
However, the Supreme Court, in an opinion authored by Justice Thomas, ruled that because mandatory-minimum sentences increase the permissible sentencing range for a crime, any fact that triggers or increases a mandatory minimum is an element of an offense, which must be submitted to the jury. Unlike sentencing factors, which a judge may find merely by a preponderance of evidence in imposing a discretionary sentence, a mandatory-minimum ups the ante and increases a prescribed sentencing range, as does an increase of the maximum sentence for a crime. Justice Thomas stated: “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.” So, now, both facts that increase the ceiling of a sentence, the maximum, and facts that increase the floor of a sentence, the minimum, must be found beyond all reasonable doubt.
Interestingly, Justice Breyer, who disagreed with Apprendi since it was handed down in year 2000, and who continues to disagree with it, voted to apply Apprendi to mandatory minimums and overrule Harris. He wrote a concurring opinion explaining his decision to uphold Apprendi, despite his disagreement with it, and apply its rule to mandatory minimum. His reasoning is twofold: First, he reasons that if Apprendi holds the Sixth Amendment requires findings of fact beyond a reasonable doubt to sentencing maximums, the Sixth Amendment must also require the same for sentencing mandatory minimums – whether it’s raising maximums or mandatory minimums, they both raise the permissible sentence for a crime. Second, Apprendi is the defined relevant legal regime since before Harris, but the two cases have caused the anomaly that Apprendi “insist[s] that juries find sentencing facts that permit a judge to impose a higher sentence while not insisting that juries find sentencing facts that require a judge to impose a higher sentence.” Thus, he voted to uphold Apprendi, and to reverse Harris.
Did you enjoy this post? Check out this article I wrote on Pennsylvania’s strike down of mandatory minimum sentences.
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