• Facts to Factor in During Sentencing: A Judge or Jury Decision?
  • July 21, 2014
  • Law Firm: Boyle Litigation - Camp Hill Office
  • After defendant, Allen Ryan Alleyne was charged with using or carrying a firearm in relation to a crime of violence, the jury convicted him. However, the jury did not indicate whether Alleyne’s firearm was brandished, a fact that would have increased the mandatory minimum sentence from 5-years to 7-years. The sentencing judge, acting within its broad sentencing discretion, found that the defendant had brandished the firearm and therefore sentenced him to 7 years imprisonment.

    What facts need to be submitted to a jury? Generally, facts that support elements of a crime are submitted to a jury. However, what about facts that increase a defendant’s mandatory minimum sentence? Should they be submitted to the judge or the jury? How does the Sixth Amendment factor into the decision?

    In Apprendi v. New Jersey, the U.S. Supreme Court provided a foundation for this issue. The Court held that facts extending the sentence beyond the statutory minimum are elements of a crime that must be submitted to the jury. Therefore, the Sixth Amendment right to a trial “by an impartial jury” afforded to “the accused” “provides defendants with the right to have a jury find those facts beyond a reasonable doubt.”

    Two years later, the Court in Harris v. United States, held that “judicial factfinding that increases the mandatory minimum sentence for a crime is permissible under the Sixth Amendment.”

    However, the Court’s recent decision in Alleyne v. United States, overruled Harris holding that “[a]ny fact that, by law, increases the penalty for a crime is an ‘element’ that must be submitted to the jury and found beyond a reasonable doubt.” Writing for the majority, in the Court’s 5-4 decision, Justice Thomas noted that “there is no basis in principle or logic to distinguish facts that raise the maximum from those that increase minimum, [therefore] Harris was inconsistent with Apprendi.”

    So what does the Alleyne decision mean for Sixth Amendment jurisprudence and judicial discretion? According to Justice Sotomayor’s concurring opinion, Harris “stood on especially weak ground because its vitality depended upon the possibility that the Court might retreat from Apprendi.” Therefore, since the decision in Harris was one “of questionable precedential value,” the Court’s holding was in accordance with the doctrine of stare decisis and brought “‘coherence and consistency’ to our Sixth Amendment law.”

    On the other hand, Chief Justice Roberts in his dissenting opinion thought the majority’s reasoning runs afoul of the Framers intent of the Sixth Amendment. He writes that “[t]he Framers envisioned the Sixth Amendment as a protection for defendants from the power of the Government. The Court transforms it into a protection for judge from the power of the legislature.”

    Nonetheless, the Court clearly writes that even though “facts that increase mandatory minimum sentences must be submitted to the jury . . . [that] does not mean that any fact that influences judicial discretion must be found by a jury.”