Posted by Zachary K. Peterson

On Tuesday, June 17, 2013, the Supreme Court of the United States decided Alleyne v. United States, Docket No. 11-9335, which has serious implications regarding federal sentencing.  Overruling Harris v. United States, 536 U.S. 545 (2002), the Court held in Alleyne that the Sixth Amendment requires the facts that set mandatory minimum penalties be proved to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. 

In Alleyne, the defendant, Allen Alleyne, was convicted of an offense carrying a 5-year mandatory minimum sentence that increases to a 7-year sentence if “the firearm is brandished.”  The jury, in convicting Alleyne, specifically found beyond a reasonable doubt that he did not brandish a firearm, but the sentencing judge found (by the lower preponderance of the evidence standard) that he did, and sentenced him to 7 years.  The Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed the sentence, but the Supreme Court vacated and remanded the case, holding that the Sixth Amendment requires facts that set mandatory minimum penalties be proved beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury – not a judge by the lower preponderance of the evidence standard. 

Alleyne is consistent with the Court’s decision in Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466 (2000), which holds that any fact allowing the judge to impose a sentence beyond the statutory maximum must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt.  Though similar in theory and providing consistency in Sixth Amendment jurisprudence, in practice Alleyne will have a greater impact than Apprendi because defendants are generally sentenced based on mandatory minimums as opposed to maximums. 

Before Apprendi and Alleyne were decided, a judge could make a judicial factual determination that resulted in the imposition of a sentence beyond the statutory maximum or minimum with no jury involvement.  Rejecting the distinction created by Harris between facts that increase the statutory maximum and those that increase the statutory minimum, the Supreme Court opinion in Alleyne, authored by Justice Clarence Thomas and joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan, marks a positive step in protecting Americans’ basic rights guaranteed by our Constitution.