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Supreme Court limits judges' discretion on minimum sentences

Any fact that increases the mandatory minimum sentence for a crime must be determined by a jury, not a judge, the Supreme Court rules in an important Sixth Amendment case.

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The case is important because it recognizes an expanded role for juries under the Sixth Amendment to decide key facts of a criminal case, rather than permitting judges to decide such issues.

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In a dissent, Chief Justice John Roberts said minimum mandatory sentences imposed by judges do not violate the jury trial guarantee of the Sixth Amendment.

“The question here is about the power of judges, not juries,” he wrote in a 10-page dissent joined by Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy. (Justice Samuel Alito filed a separate dissent.)

“Under the rule in place until today, a legislature could tell judges that certain facts carried certain weight, and require the judge to devise a sentence based on that weight – so long as the sentence remained within the range authorized by the jury,” he wrote.

The issue arose in the case of Allen Ryan Alleyne. Mr. Alleyne was an accomplice in a plot to rob a store manager of his day’s deposits while on his way to a local bank. The two plotters duped the manager into pulling over at the side of the road where they pretended to be having car trouble.

Alleyne’s partner, armed with a gun, asked the manager to surrender his money. He did so.

Alleyne was later arrested and charged with robbery and using or carrying a firearm in a crime of violence. At his trial, the jury was asked to decide whether the defendant 1) “used” a firearm, or 2) “brandished” a firearm during the alleged crime.

The first option carried a five-year minimum sentence, the second “brandishing option” carried a seven-year minimum sentence.

The jury convicted Alleyne of using a firearm, and did not indicate a finding that the firearm was “brandished.”

Nonetheless, the trial judge as part of the sentencing process determined on his own by a preponderance of the evidence that the gun had, in fact, been brandished. Alleyne was sentenced to seven years in prison rather than five years.

An appeals court affirmed the sentencing decision.

Chief Justice Roberts and the other dissenting justices said the seven-year sentence had been fully authorized by the jury verdict and did not usurp any role of the jury. Under the statute the jury’s finding of guilt empowered the judge to sentence Alleyne anywhere from five years to life in prison.

“No additional finding of fact was ‘essential’ to any punishment within the range,” Roberts said. “After rendering the verdict, the jury’s role was completed.”

Thomas and the majority justices disagreed. They found that the element of “brandishing” was a factor that increased the allowable sentence, and, thus, constituted a separate aggravated offense that must be found by the jury, regards of the sentence the defendant might have received under a different sentencing range.

“If a judge were to find a fact that increased the statutory maximum sentence, such a finding would violate the Sixth Amendment, even if the defendant ultimately received a sentence falling within the original sentencing range,” Thomas wrote.

The case was remanded so Alleyne could be resentenced to the lower prison term.

The case was Alleyne v. US (11-9335).

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