Alleyne Case: You’ve Gotta Prove It to Give a Mandatory Minimum

Post Date: June 17, 2013

Today the U.S. Supreme Court issued an opinion in Alleyne v. United States that requires the government to prove its case by proof beyond a reasonable doubt to give someone a mandatory minimum sentence.

Wait a minute, you say, didn’t the government already have to do that?  Not necessarily, and the facts of the Alleyne case explain why.

Alleyne was convicted of violating 18 U.S.C. section 924(c), which carries mandatory minimum sentences for possessing (5 years), brandishing (7 years), or discharging (10 years) a gun in the course of a crime of violence.  Alleyne’s codefendant took a gun on a robbery and brandished it, and Alleyne was held accountable for that conduct.  But Alleyne was only convicted by a jury — by proof beyond a reasonable doubt — ofpossession of the gun (5-year mandatory minimum).  At sentencing, though, the judge found that Alleyne should be sentenced forbrandishing the gun (7-year mandatory minimum).  But the judge didn’t find this fact by proof beyond a reasonable doubt.  He found it by a lower standard of proof, a “preponderance of the evidence.”

The Supreme Court decided today that the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution requires that facts that can lead to stiffer sentences — including longer mandatory minimums — must be proven by proof beyond a reasonable doubt.  Since that didn’t happen in Alleyne’s case, he was sent back to be resentenced to the lower, 5-year mandatory minimum. 

The Alleyne rule applies to all mandatory minimum sentences, not just gun cases — so whenever the government tries to get a longer mandatory minimum, it’s got to prove the facts that trigger that sentence, and it’s got to prove them by proof beyond a reasonable doubt.  That’s going to make it harder to give mandatory minimum sentences, and that’s good news!

Alleyne is unlikely to help people who have cases like his and are already in federal prison, because there are other legal cases, rules, and statutes that make it hard to do so.  If you have questions about whetherAlleyne could help your loved one, ask a public defender or attorney.

U.S. News and World Report has this good story about the case and a quote from FAMM’s vice president and general counsel, Mary Price, who spearheaded our submission of a “friend of the court” brief in the case:

In particular, the 5-4 ruling will make it harder to impose minimum sentences on drug offenders, because they are among the most frequent to receive those sentences. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the majority opinion. He was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

“Mandatory minimums for drug offenders will lessen, but it’s difficult to say to what extent,” says Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, which opposes mandatory minimum sentences. “It’s also likely that this will have beneficial effects in reducing racial disparity, because so many mandatory minimums are imposed for drug offenses, and because African-Americans in particular are on the receiving end of those penalties.”

Mary Price, vice president and general counsel of the advocacy group Families Against Mandatory Minimums, likewise praised the ruling. “There are drug mandatory minimums that before today could be imposed without constitutional protection of a jury finding – [the ruling] ends that practice,” she says. 

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