The Alleyne Decision

Alleyne v. U.S., No. 11-9335 (U.S. Sup. Ct. June 17, 2013) (Justice Thomas)

In Alleyne, the Supreme Court, by a 5-4 vote, reversed its much maligned decision in Harris v. U.S., 536 U.S. 545 (2002), which held that the Apprendi rule does not bar a sentencing judge from making factual determinations that can increase a defendant's mandatory minimum sentence, even if not charged in the indictment. In an important ruling that will strictly limit judges' discretion in imposing mandatory minimum sentences from now on, the majority held that any fact that increases the mandatory minimum sentence for a crime must be determined by a jury, not by a sentencing judge.

In Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466 (2000), the Supreme Court started a modern day sentencing revolution by holding that "other than the fact of a prior conviction, any fact that increases the penalty for a crime beyond the prescribed statutory minimum must be submitted to a jury and proved beyond a reasonable doubt." The Apprendi Court reasoned that facts which increase the prescribed range of penalties to which a criminal defendant is exposed are "elements" of the crime, and thus the Sixth Amendment provides defendants with the right to have a jury find those facts beyond a reasonable doubt. Two years later, in an incongruent and much beleaguered 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court held, in Harris v. U.S., 536 U.S. 545 (2002), that its rule in Apprendi does not bar a sentencing judge from making factual determinations that can increase a defendant's mandatory minimum sentence, even if those facts are not charged in the indictment. The Harris Court somehow drew an artificial distinction between facts that increase the statutory maximum and facts that increase only the mandatory minimum. In the instant case, the Court took the unusual step of reversing the relatively recent Harris decision. Writing for a strange alignment of Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor and Kagan (and joined by Justice Breyer in a separate concurrence), Justice Thomas firmly wrote: "Harris drew a distinction between facts that increase the statutory maximum and facts that increase only the mandatory minimum. We conclude that this distinction is inconsistent with our decision in Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466, 120 S.Ct. 2348, 147 L.Ed.2d 435 (2000), and with the original meaning of the Sixth Amendment. Any fact that, by law, increases the penalty for a crime is an 'element' that must be submitted to the jury and found beyond a reasonable doubt. Mandatory minimum sentences increase the penalty for a crime. It follows, then, that any fact that increases the mandatory minimum is an 'element' that must be submitted to the jury. Accordingly, Harris is overruled." The Court's about-face was made possible in large part by a change of position by the often inscrutable Justice Breyer who concurred in Harris, but who has reversed himself in the instant case, explaining in a refreshingly candid and surprisingly clear separate concurring opinion: "Eleven years ago, in Harris v. United States, 536 U.S. 545, 122 S.Ct. 2406, 153 L.Ed.2d 524 (2002), I wrote that 'I cannot easily distinguish Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466, 120 S.Ct. 2348, 147 L.Ed.2d 435 (2000), from this case in terms of logic.' I nonetheless accepted Harris' holding because I could '[n]ot yet accept [ Apprendi 's] rule.' I continue to disagree with Apprendi. See 536 U.S., at 569-570; United States v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220, 326, 125 S.Ct. 738, 160 L.Ed.2d 621 (2005) (opinion dissenting in part); Blakely v. Washington, 542 U.S. 296, 328, 124 S.Ct. 2531, 159 L.Ed.2d 403 (2004) (dissenting opinion); Apprendi, supra, at 555 (same). But Apprendi has now defined the relevant legal regime for an additional decade. And, in my view, the law should no longer tolerate the anomaly that the Apprendi/Harris distinction creates." (Some internal citations omitted). Justices Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy and Alito dissented in one opinion; in a separate, sharp dissent, Justice Alito wrote in part: "The Court overrules a well-entrenched precedent with barely a mention of stare decisis ... If the Court is of a mind to reconsider existing precedent, a prime candidate should be Apprendi v. New Jersey ... The Court's decision creates a precedent about precedent that may have greater precedential effect than the dubious decisions on which it relies." The facts that led to this 5-4 decision arose in the case of Allen Ryan Alleyne, who was an accomplice in a plot to rob a store manager of his day's deposits while on his way to a local bank. The two plotters duped the manager into pulling over at the side of the road where they pretended to be having car trouble. Alleyne's partner, armed with a gun, asked the manager to surrender his money. He did so. Alleyne was later arrested and charged with robbery and using or carrying a firearm in a crime of violence. At his trial, the jury was asked to decide whether Alleyne (1) "used" a firearm, or (2) "brandished" a firearm during the charged crime. The first option carried a five-year minimum sentence, the second "brandishing option" carried a seven-year minimum sentence. The jury convicted Alleyne of using a firearm, and did not indicate a finding that the firearm was "brandished." Nonetheless, the trial judge, relying on Harris, determined on his own by a preponderance of the evidence that the gun had, in fact, been brandished. Alleyne was sentenced to seven years in prison rather than five years. On appeal, the Fourth Circuit affirmed in a decision reported at U.S. v. Alleyne, 457 Fed.Appx. 348 (4th Cir. Dec. 15, 2011). On appeal to the Supreme Court, the majority held that Alleyne'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 therefore vacated Alleyne's sentence and remanded the case for resentencing in line with the jury's verdict.