Supreme Court Rules on Who Gets to Determine Facts Affecting Minimum Sentencing in Criminal Trials

In the rush of monumental end-of-term rulings by the Supreme Court that included controversial opinions on same-sex marriage, voting rights, and affirmative action, Alleyne vs. United States has gone largely unnoticed.


The case, which dealt with the criminal law problem of federal sentencing regulations, is not an insignificant ruling, however. In a 5-4 decision, the Court overturned precedent and ruled that only juries, not judges, have the power to determine facts about trials that have the potential to result in longer minimum sentences.


The ruling decided that Allen Alleyne should be resentenced for his 2009 conviction in the robbery of a convenience store in Virginia because the judge imposed a higher minimum sentence for a gun related offense, based on his own conclusions, than the jury found him guilty of beyond a reasonable doubt.


The jury found him guilty of having possessed a weapon, but the judge imposed the minimum sentence for having brandished the gun according to his own perception of “a preponderance of evidence” regarding the events as presented in the trial. However, the determination by the Supreme Court ruled that a mandatory minimum sentence must be determined solely by the jury’s ruling on guilt beyond a reasonable doubt or decided upon in a plea agreement, and that a judge does not have the authority to impose mandatory minimum sentences based on a preponderance of evidence.


With conflicting rulings having previously made mandatory minimum sentencing a controversial matter, Alleyne vs. U.S. provides consistency and clarity to federal sentencing regulations. Additionally, it requires prosecutors to prove additional facts to juries that result in sentencing. For example, the prosecutor in Alleyne’s case would had to have proved, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant had brandished the weapon during the robbery for him to have been sentenced the mandatory minimum of seven years rather than five for possession of a firearm.


The case overturned the precedent set in Harris vs. United States which previously allowed for judges to decide on facts which could affect a mandatory minimum sentence.


Alleyne didn’t get rid of mandatory minimum sentencing provisions, which remain criminal law’s bluntest instrument. Those harsh statutes will still bind judges’ hands and continue to produce outlandish sentences, particularly in narcotics cases. Prosecutors simply will prove the predicate facts at trial or (more commonly) include them in plea offer


In reaching its conclusion the court, threw out a 12-year-old precedent, Harris v. U.S., in which the court allowed judges to conduct fact-finding that could lead to longer minimum sentences.


Writing for the majority, Justice Clarence Thomas said the precedent was inconsistent with a 2000 ruling in a case dealing with maximum sentences called Apprendi v. New Jersey, in which the court ruled that juries must decide facts that lead to a longer sentence.


About the author

Brett Skidmore is an Ogden, UT criminal attorney.  He regularly represents clients charged with crimes related to robbery and gun possession.