SCOTUS Secures Jury Trial Rights for Criminal Defendants

While everyone was waiting for the U.S. Supreme Court rulings on the same-sex marriage cases, the Court handed down two significant rulings last week regarding criminal sentencing.

The first was a decision handed down on Monday for the case of Alleyne v. United States. In this case, Allen Ryan Alleyne was charged with using or carrying a firearm in relation to a crime of violence (in his case, armed robbery), which carries a five-year mandatory minimum sentence, but is increased to a seven-year mandatory minimum sentence “if the firearm is brandished.” When Alleyne was convicted, the jury indicated that he had “[u]sed or carried a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence,” but did not indicate that he had brandished the weapon. However, the trial judge recommended a seven-year sentence for Alleyne. Writing for a 5-4 majority, Justice Clarence Thomas held that Alleyne’s Sixth Amendment right to a trial by jury was violated when the judge recommended the seven-year mandatory minimum sentence based on a finding that had not been reached by the jury. In his opinion, Thomas wrote:

Because mandatory minimum sentences increase the penalty for a crime, any fact that increases the mandatory minimum is an ‘element’ of the crime that must be submitted to the jury.

This decision has implications for criminal sentencing for crimes that carry mandatory minimum punishments around the country. Oftentimes with mandatory minimum drug sentences, the difference between a conviction for drug possession and a conviction for possession with intent to sell (which carries a heavier prison term) is determined solely by the weight of the drugs the person possessed at the time of his or her arrest. Now, this evidence must be presented to a jury and found to be true beyond a reasonable doubt before a judge may recommend a sentence enhancement. This ensures that offenders are given their right to a fair trial instead of facing back-door sentence enhancements after their conviction.

The court’s ruling is a victory for the Sixth Amendment, as well as for advocates in favor of fairer sentences for those who face mandatory minimum terms of imprisonment.