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U.S. Supreme Court Decision Puts Mandatory Sentencing in PA in a Turmoil

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In Alleyne v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that juries not judges should decide whether the facts that trigger mandatory sentences apply.

By Attorney Elisabeth K.H. Pasqualini, Sexual Crimes Defense Lawyer, Harrisburg, PA

In a 5-4 majority opinion, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on June 17, 2013, that juries, not judges determine whether the facts exist that establish whether a minimum mandatory sentence should apply.  As a result of this decision, some counties in Pennsylvania, such as Lycoming, Allegheny and Blair stopped imposing mandatory minimum sentences all together.


Since the U.S. Supreme Court's 2000 decision in Apprendi v. New Jersey held that any facts which increase a criminal defendant's maximum possible sentence are considered "elements" of the criminal offense that must be proved to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. In other words, if a statute makes it illegal to sell a drug and authorizes a ten-year maximum sentence for such an offense, but provides for a twenty-year maximum sentence for a sale of a larger quantity of the same drug, the jury rather than the judge must make a finding about the quantity before the twenty-year maximum may be imposed.

However, in 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court decided in Harris v. United States that Apprendi did not apply to facts that would increase a defendant's mandatory minimum sentence, and therefore that a judge could constitutionally decide to apply a mandatory minimum sentence on the basis of facts not proven to a jury. Justice Breyer concurred in part in Harris not because he agreed that Apprendi could be distinguished, but rather because he continued to disagree with Apprendi as a whole and could not "yet accept its rule." For years, commentators have wondered whether Harris could survive as Apprendi became increasingly settled, and Justice Breyer himself has in the past called into question his vote in Harris.

Now, Alleyne answers this question by overruling Harris. At issue in Alleyne was a seven-year sentence imposed on a defendant for having "brandished" a firearm while "using or carrying [it] during and in relation to a crime of violence." At trial, the jury found only that the defendant used or carried the firearm, which carries a five-year mandatory minimum sentence. The judge, relying on Harris, found that the defendant had "brandished" the firearm, and thereby increased the defendant's mandatory minimum sentence to seven years.

The High Court held that the defendant'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's opinion explains that the logic of Apprendi requires a jury to find all facts that fix the penalty range of a crime. According to the Court, the mandatory minimum is just as important to the statutory range as is the statutory maximum. The Court made clear that its holding was not designed to limit the discretion of the trial judge in imposing sentences within the range defined by the statutory maximum and mandatory minimum. The Court therefore vacated Alleyne's sentence and remanded the case for resentencing in line with the jury's verdict.

What's the Take-Away?

Critical factual issues relating to a mandatory minimum or maximum sentence should be submitted to a jury for consideration.  The judge should not impose a mandatory sentence for which the facts that underly consideration of the mandatory minimum or maximum require any sort of fact-finding as in Alleyne and "brandishing."  It's important to request that any and all factors that rely upon such an evaluation in sentencing be submitted to the proper fact-finding province of a jury.

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