Details: Alleyne v. United States
Alleyne v. United States raised a longstanding controversy in criminal law regarding the method of proof that the Sixth Amendment requires to impose a mandatory minimum sentence. It has been settled since the Court’s 2000 decision in Apprendi v. New Jersey that any facts which increase a criminal defendant’s maximum possible sentence are considered “elements” of the criminal offense that must be proved to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. In other words, if a statute makes it illegal to sell a drug and authorizes a ten-year maximum sentence for such an offense, but provides for a twenty-year maximum sentence for a sale of a larger quantity of the same drug, the jury rather than the judge must make a finding about the quantity before the twenty-year maximum may be imposed.
In 2002, the Court decided in Harris v. United States that Apprendi did not apply to facts that would increase a defendant’s mandatory minimum sentence, and therefore that a judge could constitutionally decide to apply a mandatory minimum sentence on the basis of facts not proven to a jury. Justice Breyer concurred in part in Harris not because he agreed that Apprendi could be distinguished, but rather because he continued to disagree with Apprendi as a whole and could not “yet accept its rule.” For years, commentators have wondered whether Harris could survive as Apprendi became increasingly settled, and Justice Breyer himself has in the past called into question his vote in Harris.
Alleyne answers this question by overruling Harris. At issue in Alleyne was a seven-year sentence imposed on a defendant for having “brandished” a firearm while “using or carrying [it] during and in relation to a crime of violence.” At trial, the jury found only that the defendant used or carried the firearm, which carries a five-year mandatory minimum sentence. The judge, relying on Harris, found that the defendant had “brandished” the firearm, and thereby increased the defendant’s mandatory minimum sentence to seven years. In a five-to-four decision by Justice Thomas (joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan), the Court today held that the defendant’s seven-year mandatory minimum sentence violated his Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury because the question of brandishing was never submitted to the jury. The Court’s opinion explains that the logic of Apprendi requires a jury to find all facts that fix the penalty range of a crime. According to the Court, the mandatory minimum is just as important to the statutory range as is the statutory maximum. The Court made clear that its holding was not designed to limit the discretion of the trial judge in imposing sentences within the range defined by the statutory maximum and mandatory minimum. The Court therefore vacated Alleyne’s sentence and remanded the case for resentencing in line with the jury’s verdict.
Justice Breyer, who provided the pivotal fifth vote, concurred in part and in the judgment. His concurrence reiterates his belief that Apprendi was wrongly decided, but explains that because “Apprendi has now defined the relevant legal regime for an additional decade… the law can no longer tolerate the anomaly that the Apprendi/Harris distinction creates.” Justice Sotomayor’s concurrence (joined by Justices Ginsburg and Kagan), argues that overruling Harris is consistent with the principles of stare decisis. The Chief Justice (joined by Justices Scalia and Kennedy) and Justice Alito each wrote dissents.