The Supreme Court issued an important criminal decision this week, Alleyne v. United States, when it said that a jury should have the final say on what triggers mandatory minimum sentences in criminal cases.
The Court voted in a 5-4 decision to overturn the sentencing decision in defendant Allen Alleyne’s case. Alleyne was convicted of robbery and firearm possession in Richmond, Virginia. The issue came down to whether or not Alleyne’s accomplice ever brandished a weapon during the commission of the robbery. If so, then Alleyne would be subject to mandatory minimum sentencing.
The jury believed that Alleyne’s accomplice did not brandish a weapon, but the judge disagreed, saying that he believed he had flashed a gun. This decision meant that Alleyne’s mandatory minimum sentence was raised from five to seven years.
Alleyne’s attorneys appealed the lower court’s decision, claiming that the judge overstepped his bounds. Specifically, Alleyne’s lawyers argued that the brandishing decision should have been left up to the jury. Instead, the judge made his determination using a lower standard of proof.
The Justice Department, for its part, stepped in to argue that the current system of allowing judges to occasionally intervene and apply mandatory minimum sentences has worked well for years and ought not be changed.
The Supreme Court disagreed and said that district court judges cannot issue findings that raise mandatory minimum sentences. That decision should be left exclusively to the jury. As a result, the Court decided to send the case back to the lower court for resentencing.
Some experts say the case is noteworthy not only for its holding, but for the makeup of the majority. In a rare and possibly even historic alliance, the majority was made up of the Court’s four more progressive members with the addition of Justice Clarence Thomas. Court watchers say they could not think of another time where Thomas sided with progressive justices against the conservative wing of the Court.
To read the full opinion, click here
(Lee Davis is a Chattanooga attorney who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 266-0605.)