Good lawyering results in federal criminal case going to Supreme Court: Will the Apprendi decision be extended to sentencing factors that change mandatory minimum punishments?

October 25, 2012 by Paul Kish

Good lawyering in federal criminal cases often requires that the attorney not only be a student of the law, he or she needs to also recognize when a particular issue might be a current "loser" but the higher courts are waiting to change the rule. That might turn out to be the situation in Alleyne v. United States, a case recently accepted for review by the United States Supreme Court. Mr. Alleyne's prescient Public Defenders objected to a ruling that was correct at the time it was made, but early next year the Supreme Court will hear arguments as to whether the rule should be changed.

In 2000, the Supreme Court issued the landmark ruling of Apprendi v. New Jersey. That case held for the first time that any fact that can change the maximum punishment to which a Defendant is exposed must be pled in the indictment, and proven to the jury by the usual "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard. This is very important because until that time many facts that result in potentially longer prison sentences could be decided by one person, the sentencing judge, and that judge could use the less stringent "preponderance" evidentiary standard.

However, in 2002 the Court in a case called Harris v. United States restricted the Apprendi rule, holding that it did not apply when a particular fact merely kicked in a "mandatory minimum" sentence, but did not change the potential maximum. Federal crimes often come with mandatory minimum punishments which are extremely harsh, and defense lawyers for years have long chafed under a system that keeps away from the jury the crucial question as to whether the Defendant should be exposed to a very long minimum term in custody.

Harris was decided by what we call a "plurality", with Justice Breyer casting the crucial fifth vote. Justice Breyer had gone along with the other four who wanted to keep the mandatory minimum fact away from the jury. Although he questioned the logic of the whole idea, he thought there might be a difference between raising a minimum sentence and enhancing a maximum one. In a later case, though, Breyer expressed doubts about that distinction. Since that time criminal defense lawyers repeatedly made pleas to reconsider Harris, but until now all such requests have been rebuffed.

Mr. Alleyne was accused of a robbery, and one count of using a gun during a crime of violence, what we call a "gun count" or a "924(c)". He received a forty-six month sentence on the robbery charge. However, the gun charge has a 5-year minimum, and that floor can increase to a 7-year minimum if the firearm was "brandished." The jury did not accept the theory that the gun had been brandished. Even though the jury concluded that Alleyne had not done so, the trial judge ruled that Alleyne should have foreseen that his accomplice would brandish a gun during the robbery. The judge then imposed the 7-year minimum, instead of the regular 5-year punishment. Alleyne’s lawyer conceded that the Harris decision did treat brandishing a gun as a sentencing factor, not as an element of the crime, yet the public Defenders argued that Harris was inconsistent with Apprendi and later sentencing cases. The judge rejected that challenge, but commented while imposing the added 2-year sentence that “I don’t like being the reverser of juries.” The judge said the Harris precedent gave him no choice.

Again, this is an important case. Perhaps more importantly, it reminds all of us about how important it is to keep up on the law, to note potential trends, and to never give up on an argument that can help our clients.