Supreme Court takes on case that could lead to fewer mandatory minimum sentences - Alleyne v. United States
In an exciting development, the U.S. Supreme Court recently announced that it would hear a case that might lead to fewer people getting mandatory minimum sentences. What the Court is being asked to decide is whether the facts that trigger a mandatory minimum must be decided by the jury “beyond a reasonable doubt” or by the judge using a much lower legal standard, “by a preponderance of the evidence.” If the Court agrees with FAMM and other sentencing experts that the higher standard should apply when someone’s liberty is at stake, then fewer people will get stuck with a mandatory minimum at sentencing.
One of the main problems with mandatory minimum sentencing laws is that Congress decides for everyone which factors will determine who gets a mandatory sentence. Rather than allow judges to have the discretion to consider all the relevant factors, Congress often puts heavy emphasis on just one factor. In drug cases, for example, Congress has made weight the most important factor. For example, Congress passed a law in 2010 that says anyone found guilty of buying or selling 28 grams of crack will receive a 5-year mandatory minimum sentence.
But once Congress makes the law, who should decide whether a person actually sold the 28 grams necessary to trigger the mandatory sentence - the jury, whose job it is to decide the facts establishing guilt, or the judge? In this example and indeed in most laws with mandatory minimums, the jury decides the facts that trigger a mandatory minimum. That is important because juries can only make those kinds of factual findings “beyond a reasonable doubt.” That makes sense. If Congress is going to remove sentencing discretion from judges, it should do so only when the facts are very well established.
You might be surprised to learn that, in 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Congress could leave some facts that trigger mandatory minimums for the judge to decide. That is important because judges don’t use the strict “beyond a reasonable doubt” test. They have a much lower standard known as “preponderance of the evidence.” The statute in question was a gun statute and the Supreme Court decided that while juries had to decide whether a defendant possessed a gun (triggering a five year mandatory minimum), judges make the decision about how the gun is used (triggering mandatory minimum increases to seven or even ten years). Once judges find that it was more likely than not that a gun was used in a certain way, the judge has to impose the higher mandatory minimum.
That decision is now going to be reviewed by the Supreme Court. The case, Alleyne v. United States, springs from the robbery of a convenience store owner in Virginia. The robber received a mandatory sentence of eighty-four months on top of his underlying sentence because the court found that he must have known that his accomplice would “brandish” (or wield) a gun during the robbery. Brandishing a gun is a factor, like weight in drug crimes, which triggers a specific mandatory minimum sentence.
In Alleyne, the judge, not the jury, decided that the robber’s plan included brandishing a gun. His decision automatically compelled him to impose the mandatory minimum. This decision was consistent with the Supreme Court’s 2002 ruling.
If you think the difference between the judge and the jury making the decision is minor, think again. In the Alleyne case, the jury actually acquitted the robber of the brandishing factor, but the judge decided otherwise.
So why has the Supreme Court decided to hear the case? No one knows for sure, but many sentencing reform advocates - including FAMM - are hopeful that the Court realizes its 2002 decision conflicts with an earlier opinion from 2000. In that earlier decision, the Court stated that a fact cannot be used to increase the maximum sentence a defendant can receive unless that fact has been pled and proven to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt (or admitted by the defendant).
See the problem? It simply makes no sense to say that the facts that can increase the maximum penalty must be found by a jury beyond a reasonable doubt but the facts that trigger a mandatory minimum can be found by judges with less proof.
We at FAMM have long believed that fact-finding juries should be required to find - beyond a reasonable doubt - any fact that triggers a lengthy, mandatory minimum. Count on us to be very involved in this case. We are participating in it as an amicus curiea (“friend of the court”). FAMM’s brief explain why we think the constitution requires juries, not judges, to make these decisions. We will keep you informed of any developments.
Just a cautionary note. This is NOT a case about the constitutionality of mandatory minimums. It is a case about who decides what facts that trigger them. Also, keep in mind that this decision will not affect cases in which defendants plead guilty and admit to the facts that trigger mandatory minimum sentences.
To read the briefs in this case, click here.