SCOTUS to hear challenge to mandatory minimum sentences

On October 5, 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari in Alleyne v. United States. The issue before the court is one that lower courts have struggled with since the Court's 2000 decision in Apprendi v. New Jersey. Apprendi held, that any fact other than a prior conviction that is used by a court to increase a defendant's sentence beyond the usual statutory maximum had to be found by a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. Up until the decision, judges had wide latitude at sentencing to decide facts themselves, often at standards less than reasonable doubt, which would authorize significantly enhanced sentences.

In the 2002 case Harris v. United States, The Supreme Court confronted for the first time whether or not the rule of Apprendi should be applied in cases where a judge relied on facts not found by the jury beyond a reasonable doubt to impose a mandatory minimum prison sentence. The court proved to be divided on the issue with only 5 of the 9 justices ultimately agreeing that a judge could find the fact(s) necessary to imposition of a mandatory minimum sentence.

Since that decision, lower courts throughout the country have struggled to reconcile the fact that a jury must find facts beyond a reasonable doubt in order to enhance a sentence, while judges alone may decide( and at a lesser standard of proof) certain facts that trigger a mandatory minimum sentence. Up until the certiorari grant in Alleyne, the Supreme Court had repeatedly turned away similar challenges. Some thirteen years after Apprendi's sentencing revolution it appears the mandatory minimum issue may be settled with some finality. In addition to the addition of some new faces to the court since Harris was decided, there are some indications that at least one of the judge's from the Harris majority may have changed his mind since the Harris decision was handed down.

The potential impact of any decision in Alleyne will depend on the particular mandatory minimum laws involved. Many states, like Oregon, have enacted strict mandatory minimum sentencing laws that are triggered only upon conviction of the crime charged. Oregon's Measure 11 is an example. If you are convicted of Robbery in the First Degree, you must under Measure 11 receive a 90-month mandatory minimum sentence. The judge need not find any facts beyond those already found by the jury in imposing that sentence. These sentencing schemes are the most likely to survive any Apprendi based challenges.

However, other mandatory minimum sentencing laws may be triggered by additional facts. For example, in Mr. Alleyne's case, his mandatory minimum was not based on the crime he was convicted of, Robbery affecting interstate commerce. Rather his mandatory minimum was triggered when the judge at sentencing found his accomplice had brandished a firearm during the offense. In short, although the jury found him guilty only of the robbery (and actually acquitted him of personally brandishing a firearm,) the judge found that he should be held accountable for the firearm brandished by his codefendant. The brandishing of the firearm is what triggered the mandatory minimum. A fact not found by the jury beyond a reasonable doubt.

It is this second class of mandatory minimum sentencing schemes that appear most vulnerable to being invalidated in Alleyne. If you or a loved one are facing charges carrying mandatory minimum prison sentences, you must hire experienced criminal defense lawyers versed in this newly volatile area of law.


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