Friday, January 25, 2013

United States v. Alleyne: Revisiting the Jury’s Role in Sentencing

On January 14, 2013, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in one such case:  United States v. Alleyne,[1] a case about the role of juries in modern day sentencing.  At issue in this case specifically is whether the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt any fact that may be used to increase a defendant’s sentence beyond a mandatory minimum.  In criminal cases, even the most seemingly insignificant issues are big issues.  These cases can determine whether someone goes to jail, and for how long.  As such, criminal issues are frequently appealed up to the Supreme Court.

Allen Ryan Alleyne was found guilty of robbery affecting commerce and the use of a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence.  During sentencing, the court found that Alleyne brandished a firearm during his crime, even though the jury did not find him guilty of brandishing a firearm.  Brandishing a firearm in that jurisdiction is a sentencing enhancement.  That means that in Alleyne’s case, because the judge found that he was brandishing a firearm, his sentence was raised from the mandatory minimum of five years in prison to seven years in prison.  The judge only had to find that Alleyne brandished a firearm under the preponderance of the evidence standard, which is a much lower standard of proof than beyond a reasonable doubt. 

The Supreme Court has previously addressed an issue like this in Harris v. United States.[2]  The defendant in that case also received a longer than minimum sentence because the judge found that he had brandished a firearm during his crime.  Harris was decided in 2002 as a follow up to Apprendi v. New Jersey.[3]  In Apprendi, the defendant shot into a home and then stated that he did so because the people living there were African American.  He was charged with illegal possession of a firearm, which carries a sentence of five to ten years in prison.  During the sentencing phase, the judge applied a sentencing enhancement because this was a hate crime, despite the fact that the jury did not deliberate on the issue.  The sentencing enhancement brought his sentence to twelve years in prison, two years beyond the mandatory maximum of ten years. 

The Supreme Court found that this enhancement violated the defendant’s due process rights under the Fifth Amendment and his right to a trial by jury under the Sixth Amendment.  This is because the Court found that a jury must decide on any fact that raises the defendant’s crime above the mandatory maximum beyond a reasonable doubt.  This idea stems from previous precedents that require a jury to find each element of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt.  A judge, in contrast, must only find sentencing factors by a preponderance of the evidence standard.

One explanation for the opinion in Apprendi is that sentencing factors that raise a defendant’s sentence above mandatory minimums essentially ask the judge sentence the defendant beyond the guidelines of the crime to which a jury found him guilty.  In contrast, sentencing factors like those used in Alleyne and Harris, only ask the judge to apply a higher sentence than the minimum, but still within the allowable range for that crime.  The sentence that Alleyne received was within the sentencing guidelines for the offense a jury found him guilty of.  This does not violate the defendant’s rights simply because the fact contributes to more than the minimum sentence.  

While the goal in criminal cases must always be to safeguard the Constitution and the rights of the defendant, that does not mean that courts should resolve every question in the defendant’s favor.  In this case, if the Supreme Court were to find in favor of the defendant, there would no longer be any need for a prosecutor to present sentencing information to a judge.  All facts that might raise the level of the sentence would have to be found by the jury.  This is simply not practical.  A jury cannot sit for every sentencing hearing—this would create a backlog of cases even longer than what we already have.  Judges are appointed or elected specifically to decide issues like this.  Once a jury finds the defendant guilty, the judge should be allowed to apply discretion in hearing evidence about sentencing factors, as long as they do not raise the defendant’s sentence above the maximum for the charge he was convicted of.

Bonnie Lindemann
Blogger, The Criminal Law Brief


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