Jury must determine facts increasing mandatory minimum sentence

In Alleyne v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a 5-4 ruling on June 17, 2013, in which the majority held that since mandatory minimum sentences add to the punishment for a crime, any fact that enhances a mandatory minimum sentence is an “element” of the crime that must be submitted to the jury. In so doing, the majority’s opinion expressly overruled Harris v. United States, a prior decision of the Supreme Court from 2002, which permitted judges to conduct such fact-finding. Harris was decided after Apprendi v. New Jersey, a 2000 decision in which the court ruled that jurors must find facts that raise the statutory maximum sentence.

In Alleyne, the defendant was convicted of robbing a store manager while he was on the way to a local bank with the store’s daily deposits. The defendant was charged with a federal crime for using or carrying a firearm in relation to a crime of violence and was facing a mandatory minimum sentence of five years that increased to a seven-year minimum if a firearm had been “brandished” during the commission of the crime. During sentencing, the defendant objected to the presentence report, which recommended a seven-year sentence. The defendant argued that the increase of the mandatory minimum to seven years based on the finding of brandishing at sentencing would be contrary to the Sixth Amendment because the jury verdict clearly demonstrated that the jury did not make a finding of brandishing beyond a reasonable doubt. The District Court and the Court of Appeals found against the defendant, finding that United States v. Harris foreclosed the defendant’s claim.

The majority’s opinion in Alleyne re-examined Harris and concluded that Harris was inconsistent with Apprendi, noting that there “there is no basis in principle or logic to distinguish facts that raise the maximum from those that increase the minimum” and the “obvious truth that the floor of a mandatory range is as relevant to wrongdoers as the ceiling.”

The majority ruled that findings of fact that alter the legally mandated punishment so as to aggravate it necessarily form a constituent part of a new offense and must be submitted to the jury. Defining those facts that increase the mandatory minimum allows the criminal defendant to understand the applicable penalty from the indictment’s fact; this rule keeps the jury’s traditional rule as the intermediary between the state and criminal defendants.

The majority held that a fact activating a mandatory minimum alters the fixed range of sentences to which a defendant is subjected, and that it is beyond dispute that facts increasing the legally mandated minimum aggravate the punishment, since they heighten the loss of liberty connected with the crime.

The court took care to note, however, that its ruling does not mean that any fact that influences judicial discretion in sentencing determinations must be found by the jury; when fashioning a sentence, judges may continue to exercise their discretion to consider factors in aggravation or mitigation that are not covered by the allegations in the indictment. The court explained that “[e]stablishing what punishment is available by law and setting a specific punishment within the bounds that the law has prescribed are two different things.”

Individuals who face criminal charges should seek the advice and assistance of a competent attorney experienced in defending these matters to ensure that their rights are protected.

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