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U.S. Supreme Court

Juries must find facts that increase mandatory minimums, Supreme Court says

Posted Jun 17, 2013 2:11 PM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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Any fact that spurs a higher mandatory minimum sentence must be decided by a jury, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled.

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the majority opinion (PDF) overruling Harris v. United States, a 2002 decision that allowed judges to conduct such fact-finding. Harris was decided two years after Apprendi v. New Jersey, which said jurors must find facts that raise the statutory maximum sentence.

Thomas said the two Sixth Amendment cases were inconsistent, citing the “obvious truth that the floor of a mandatory range is as relevant to wrongdoers as the ceiling.” His opinion was joined by the court’s liberals, though Justice Stephen G. Breyer declined to join parts of Thomas' opinion discussing Apprendi.

The court ruled Monday in the case of Allen Ryan Alleyne, convicted of robbing a store manager who was en route to the bank with sales proceeds. Alleyne was facing a mandatory minimum of five years in prison, but the sentence was increased to a seven-year minimum because a judge found that a gun had been “brandished” during commission of the crime.

In a concurrence, Breyer explains that he had agreed with the majority in Harris because he did not want to extend Apprendi, which he considered wrongly decided. Though he still disagrees with Apprendi, Breyer said, “the law should no longer tolerate the anomaly” created by Harris.

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. was among the dissenters. “The court overrules a well-entrenched precedent with barely a mention of stare decisis,” Alito wrote. The court appears to be casting aside precedent merely because a majority disagrees with the conclusion, suggesting the same approach may be followed in future cases, he said.

“The court’s decision creates a precedent about precedent that may have greater precedential effect than the dubious decisions on which it relies,” Alito wrote.

The case is Alleyne v. United States.

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