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Maximums and Minimums: who chooses the right criminal sentence?

by | Mar 3, 2014 | Firm News |

Allen Alleyne and an accomplice robbed the manager of a convenience store as the manager was leaving to make a bank deposit. Both Alleyne and his accomplice carried guns. After tricking the manager into stopping his car, Alleyne’s accomplice approached the manager, pressed a gun to his head, and demanded the cash the manager was carrying. The manager complied and both suspects fled the scene. Alleyne was later arrested and charged with two crimes, one for the robbery itself and another for using a firearm during a robbery. At trial the jury was asked to decide two critical questions, did Alleyne carry or use a weapon during the robbery and did he discharge that weapon. The jury found beyond a reasonable doubt that he had carried or used a weapon during the robbery, but made no determination as to the second question.

Under applicable federal law, the sentence for robbery changes when a firearm enters the picture. For a carrying a gun, a defendant faces 5 years, for brandishing a gun, 7 years, and longer still for actually discharging a gun. During Alleyne’s sentencing hearing the judge decided, on a preponderance of the evidence (meaning more than 50% likely), that Alleyne had actually brandished his weapon and accordingly imposed the 7 year enhanced sentence. Alleyne appealed, arguing that the sentence violated his Sixth Amendment rights because this fact had never been properly submitted to the jury. The case eventually wound its way to the U.S. Supreme Court – but let’s backup for a second.

What are sentence enhancements?

While every state has its own set of criminal laws, as does the Federal Government, most systems incorporate one or both of two types of statutorily mandated sentencing guidelines; mandatory minimums, or statutory maximums. The distinction between the two can sometimes get confusing so we’ll consider each separately.

Mandatory Minimums

Mandatory minimums refer to the smallest (least harsh) penalty a judge is allowed to apply to a given class of criminal defendant. When presented with a case in which the facts match the conditions established by the applicable law, a judge does not have the discretion to hand down a sentence lower than the minimum prescribed by the legislature; use of a deadly weapon, rape or child abuse, targeting an elected official, racially or religiously motivate crimes, and many other things can often lead to mandatory minimum sentences. Where one applies, a lesser sentence cannot be imposed, no matter how appropriate it might seem in an individual case.

Statutory Maximums

Statutory maximums are just the opposite (almost). Here, the legislature has defined the maximum penalty that a given class of defendants can face. A judge presiding over an applicable case does not have the discretion to impose a harsher sentence than the cap established by the legislature; no matter the nature of the particular defendant in question. Many crimes have caps on the punishment that can be applied. However, there are often ranges provided depending on the facts. For example, using a fire arm during a robbery can increase a defendant’s exposure by several years over a similar defendant who committed an identical robbery without a firearm. Judges do not have to impose maximum sentences, but cannot exceed them. The range of possible sentences falling between any applicable mandatory minimum and statutory maximum equals the defendant’s potential exposure.

Who decides?

Often it is the judge who decides a specific penalty. Get picked up for insider trading under sympathetic circumstances and you might find a judge willing to “go easy” on you. Hassle the judge all the way through a trial, and you’re more likely to find yourself facing a harsher sentence. However, things become somewhat less clear, and, until Alleyne, less constitutionally certain, when a mandatory minimum or statutory maximum sentence range is triggered. Usually these conditions result from the specific facts of the case; did the defendant carry a gun, how old was the child, how much money was involved, and the like. Is a judge allowed to determine the existence or extent of such facts during the sentencing phase of a trial, or must the jury find the existence of these facts beyond a reasonable doubt?

Enter the Supreme Court

In 2000, the Supreme Court weighed in; declaring that any fact which raised a statutory maximum must be decided by a jury beyond reasonable doubt but that judges were free to determine facts triggering a mandatory minimum based only on a preponderance of the evidence. For a decade this inconsistency in the law stood strong against numerous attacks by scholars and repeated attempts by the defendant’s bar to have the ruling overturned. Then came Alleyne; based on facts very similar to those in the Court’s earlier decision, and brought on a challenge to the exact same Federal law, both the district court and the Fourth Circuit refused to amend Alleyne’s sentence; standing, so they thought, on strong Supreme Court guidance.

Overruled!

To many people’s great surprise, the Court changed its mind. The majority in Alleyne held that statutory maximums and mandatory minimums weren’t different after all; facts triggering both types of sentencing guidelines must be decided by a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. It took a few years, but the right decision was ultimately made. Thanks to Alleyne, the full protection of the Sixth Amendment’s trial by jury requirement is now available to criminal defendants facing a legislatively proscribed sentencing enhancement under either State or Federal law.