U.S. Supreme Court Decides Alleyne v. United States: Only Jury Can Find Facts that Trigger Mandatory Minimums

Post Date: June 17, 2013

WASHINGTON, D.C. – 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.  Until today, 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.

“No defendant should have to face a mandatory minimum sentence because of facts that are not considered — or worse, considered and rejected — by a jury,” said Mary Price, FAMM’s vice president and general counsel, who helped draft FAMM’s amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) brief in the case. “As Justice Thomas noted in today’s opinion, “mandatory minimums ‘heighten the loss of liberty.’  Today, those who face mandatory minimums do so with the Constitution more firmly at their backs.”

Price noted that in most cases with mandatory minimums the jury decides the facts that trigger that minimum.  That is important because juries make those kinds of factual findings “beyond a reasonable doubt.”  However, in Harris v. United States, in 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Congress could leave some facts that trigger higher mandatory minimums for the judge to decide by the lower, “more-likely-than-not” standard.  

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. 

In its amicus brief in Alleyne  FAMM explained why the Constitution requires juries, not judges, to make these decisions.  You can find the briefs and oral argument transcript for the case here.

FAMM is a national nonprofit, nonpartisan organization supporting fair and proportionate sentencing laws that allow judicial discretion while maintaining public safety. For more information on FAMM, visit http://www.famm.org or contact media@famm.org.