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.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
A police officer keeps watch outside the Supreme Court in Washington, Monday, June 17.

Judges will no longer be permitted to autonomously determine a fact in a criminal case if that fact increases a mandatory minimum punishment for the defendant, the Supreme Court ruled Monday, saying any such fact must be decided by a jury.

The decision marks an important affirmation of the Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial, while establishing a new rule for judges seeking to balance sentencing guidelines with their own judicial discretion.

In the 5-to-4 decision, the high court overturned two existing legal precedents from 1986 and 2002 that permitted judges to make such determinations themselves by a preponderance of the evidence.

In overturning those precedents, the majority justices said any fact that increases a defendant’s sentence – including a mandatory minimum sentence – must be submitted to a jury under the higher standard of proof of beyond a reasonable doubt.

“The essential Sixth Amendment inquiry is whether a fact is an element of the crime,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in the 17-page majority opinion.

“When a finding of fact alters a legally prescribed punishment so as to aggravate it, the fact necessarily forms a constituent part of a new offense and must be submitted to the jury,” Justice Thomas said.

“It is no answer to say that the defendant could have received the same sentence with or without that fact,” Thomas added.

“The decision in Alleyne deserves credit for clearing up a strange feature of the Court’s modern Sixth Amendment cases,” said Ryan Scott, a law professor at Indiana University.

“Before today, the right to trial by jury played an important role in limiting the maximum sentence to which a criminal defendant is exposed, but no role in limiting the minimum,” he said. 

“Recognizing that there was no persuasive reason to draw a constitutional distinction between the sentencing ‘ceiling’ and ‘floor,’ the Court has announced that the Sixth Amendment applies equally to both,” Professor Scott said.

The decision won immediate praise from Virginia Sloan, president of the Constitution Project.

“By limiting a judge’s ability to use elements of a crime specifically rejected by a jury in determining whether or not to impose a mandatory minimum, the Court fittingly strengthen due process protections during the sentencing process, and we applaud them for it,” Ms. Sloan said in a statement.

“In cases such as this one that have gone to a jury, we believe it is generally preferable to let the jury be the fact-finder in mandatory minimum sentencing determinations, rather than relying solely on the judge’s discretion,” she said.

Joining Thomas in the majority were Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan.

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.

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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