Objection to Sentencing Undermines Precedent

     (CN) – Overruling 11-year-old precedent, the Supreme Court on Monday ordered the resentencing of a Virginia man convicted of robbery and weapons charges.
     A federal jury in Richmond had found Allen Ryan Alleyne guilty of robbery affecting commerce and use or carry of a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence in December 2011.
     The jurors also concluded, however, that Alleyne was not guilty of brandishing the firearm during the robbery.
     Disagreed with this finding, U.S. District Judge Robert Payne raised Alleyne’s minimum sentence from five to seven years on that charge.
     Alleyne appealed, contending that Payne had violated his Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial, but the 4th Circuit affirmed in 2011.
     In taking up the case, the Supreme Court agreed to consider whether to overrule Harris v. United States, a 2002 decision in which the Supreme Court found no Sixth Amendment issue in judicial factfinding that increases the mandatory minimum sentence for a crime.
     A plurality of justices concluded Monday that the decision is inconsistent with earlier precedent, the 2000 decision in Apprendi v. New Jersey, as well as the Sixth Amendment.
     Over the years, several divided decisions by the Supreme Court had muddied the constitutional status of a “sentencing factor,” according to the ruling.
     In the 1986 decision for McMillan v. Pennsylvania, the court held that facts found to increase a mandatory minimum sentence are sentencing factors that a judge could find by a preponderance of the evidence.
     In Apprendi, however, the court declined to extend McMillan to a New Jersey statute that increased the maximum term of imprisonment if the trial judge found that the crime was committed with racial bias.
     That decision said any fact increasing the prescribed statutory maximum sentence must be an element of the offense to be found by a jury.
     This paves the way for the undoing of Harris.
     “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,” Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the plurality. “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.”
     “Because the finding of brandishing increased the penalty to which the defendant was subjected, it was an element, which had to be found by the jury beyond a reasonable doubt,” the decision concluded. “The judge, rather than the jury, found brandishing, thus violating petition­er’s Sixth Amendment rights.”
     Only Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined the Thomas opinion in full. Justice Stephen Breyer joined as to all but a section concerning the Sixth Amendment and another section that listed examples of the practice where prosecutors include in the indictment, and submit to the jury, “every fact that was a basis for imposing or increasing punishment.”
     “While Harris has been the law for 11 years, Apprendi has been the law for even longer; and I think the time has come to end this anomaly in Apprendi‘s application,” he wrote. “Con­sequently, I vote to overrule Harris.”
     In a concurring opinion, Ginsburg, Sotomayor and Kagan spoke about the doctrine of stare decis, which found that a ruling cannot necessarily be overruled based solely on the finding that it was wrong.
     “Rarely will a claim for stare decisis be as weak as it is here, where a constitutional rule of criminal procedure isat issue that a majority of the court has previously recog­nized is incompatible with our broader jurisprudence,” according to the opinion signed by Sotomayor.
     “Because I believe that the court’s decision to apply Apprendi to mandatory minimums is consistent with stare decisis principles, I join the opinion of the court,” she added.
     Justice Samuel Alito decried the barebones references to stare decis in a dissent.
     “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.
     Justice Antonin Scalia and Justice Anthony Kennedy joined Chief Justice Roberts in a dissent that slams the majority for transforming the Sixth Amendment into “a protection for judges from the power of the Legislature.”
     “Our holdings that a judge may not sentence a defendant to more than the jury has authorized properly preserve the jury right as a guard against judicial overreaching,” Roberts wrote.
     “There is no such risk of judicial overreaching here,” he added. “Under [federal law], the jury’s verdict fully authorized the judge to impose a sentence of anywhere from five years to life in prison. No additional finding of fact was ‘essential’ to any punishment within the range. After rendering the verdict, the jury’s role was completed, it was discharged, and the judge began the process of determining where within that range to set Alleyne’s sentence.”
     The dissent concludes with Roberts saying that “the majority’s new rule – safeguarding the power of judges, not juries – finds no support in the history or purpose of the Sixth Amendment.”

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