Supreme Court Hears Alleyne v. United States: Case Could Lead to Fewer Mandatory Minimum Sentences, Says FAMM

Post Date: January 14, 2013

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Alleyne v. United States, 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, “a preponderance of the evidence.”

FAMM (Families Against Mandatory Minimums) filed an amicus brief in this case explaining why the Constitution requires juries, not judges, to make these decisions. 

Mary Price, vice president and general counsel of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), said:

“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. But once Congress makes the law, who should decide whether a person actually committed the offense that triggers the mandatory sentence – the jury, whose job it is to decide the facts establishing guilt, or the judge? 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.” 

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.”  However, in 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Congress could leave some facts that trigger mandatory minimums for the judge to decide. 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 even10 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.

In Alleyne v. United States, the robber of a convenience store owner in Virginia received a mandatory sentence of 84 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.

FAMM filed an amicus brief in Alleyne, and Mary Price will also attend oral arguments in the case.  Many sentencing reform advocates – including FAMM – are hopeful that the Court will rule that any fact that leads to the imposition of a mandatory minimum must be part of the indictment and must be proved to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt (or admitted by the defendant).  To read the briefs in this case, click here.

FAMM (Families Against Mandatory Minimums) is a national nonprofit, nonpartisan organization supporting fair and proportionate sentencing laws that allow judicial discretion while maintaining public safety.

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