Case: Alleyne v. United States, 11-9335
Summary of Case:
On June 17, the U.S. Supreme Court shook up mandatory minimum sentencing, extending the protection of the Sixth Amendment’s right to trial by jury to all defendants facing enhanced mandatory minimum sentences. In Alleyne v. United States, a 5-4 majority held that any fact that triggers any mandatory minimum sentence is an “element” of the crime and must be proven to a jury by proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Before Alleyne, a judge who found that certain facts had been established by the lower “preponderance of the evidence” standard was required to impose
any mandatory sentence triggered by those facts. The decision, which reverses the Court’s 2002 ruling in Harris v. United States, is a straightforward but hard-fought extension of the so-called Apprendi rule. The Apprendi case commands that any fact that increases the range of punishment to which a defendant is exposed is an “element” of the crime and must be presented to the jury and proved beyond a reasonable doubt.
As in Alleyne, the statute in Harris was the gun statute, 18 U.S.C. § 924(c). In Harris, 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 longer mandatory minimum sentences of seven or even ten years). Once judges found that it was more likely than not that a gun was used in a certain way, the judge had to impose the higher mandatory minimum. Today, Alleyne overruled this rule from Harris.
In Alleyne v. United States, the robber of a convenience store owner in Virginia was convicted under the gun statute because his accomplice used a gun in the robbery. The jury found beyond a reasonable doubt that Alleyne had known his accomplice would possess a gun in the robbery. That finding triggered the five-year mandatory minimum sentence. The judge asked the jury to consider whether Alleyne had brandished (shown) the gun. The jury did not find beyond a reasonable doubt that he had done so. At sentencing, however, the court found it more likely than not – a lower standard of proof – that Alleyne must have known that his accomplice would brandish a gun during the robbery. Brandishing a gun is a fact that triggers a specific, longer mandatory minimum sentence. In Alleyne, the judge, not the jury, decided that the robber’s plan included brandishing a gun. His decision automatically required that he impose the higher, 7-year mandatory minimum sentence. He didn’t want to, saying on the record, “I don’t like the role of being the reverser of juries.” Justice Breyer, who wrote separately, summed up what Alleyne means for judges facing such situations: “the government cannot force a judge who does not wish to impose a higher sentence to do so unless a jury finds the” facts that trigger it, by proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
What it means:
Alleyne is an important case because it means that now, facts that trigger a mandatory minimum sentence — for example, the amount of drugs — must be included in an indictment’s charges and proven to a jury by proof beyond a reasonable doubt (or admitted by the defendant in a guilty plea). For example, to give a defendant a five-year mandatory minimum sentence for a crime involving crack cocaine, the indictment must state — and the government must prove — that at least 28 grams of crack cocaine were involved in the offense. It is no longer sufficient that a judge finds these facts at sentencing.
Nicole Walker’s case is especially poignant because it shows how Alleyne could have worked—if she’d had the benefit of it. Nicole pled guilty in 2011 to her nonviolent involvement in a drug conspiracy. Her appeal and the subsequent rulings that finalized her sentence came just seven months before Alleyne was decided.
Because she was sentenced before Alleyne, the court imposed a mandatory minimum of 10 years, even though Nicole was charged with, pled guilty to, and admitted facts supporting a five-year mandatory minimum.
Before her arrest, Nicole had no prior offenses and no history of violence. She had zero criminal history points, she was not a leader in the drug conspiracy, and she had no ties to large-scale criminal organizations, gangs, or cartels.
Born to a teenage mother, Nicole was severely burned from playing with matches as a child, and her early life was rocky. In her twenties, she was introduced to meth by a boyfriend, and soon she was hooked. She was a drug addict—but by the time of her arrest, she had years of sobriety under her belt. Indeed, Nicole had broken off contact with all of her drug-using friends, had a full-time job, and was helping put her daughter through college.
In 2010, though, she was arrested for being part of the conspiracy to sell methamphetamine, a conspiracy that had taken place before she’d turned her life around, when Nicole was buying and selling the drug to support her own habit.
Her clean life and her efforts at reform didn’t matter at sentencing. After complicated plea negotiations, made even more so because of confusion about the actual weight of drugs for which she could be charged, she was sentenced to a mandatory minimum of 10 years.
Nicole is, by all accounts, not a dangerous person. Her life was marred by addiction and tragedy. If she were sentenced today, with the benefit of Alleyne, Nicole would be sentenced to far less than the 10 years, given her history and characteristics.