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Supreme Court Overrules Harris v. United States

In Alleyne v. United States (No. 11-9335), issued today, the Supreme Court overruled Harris v. United States, to hold that any facts which increase a defendant's mandatory minimum sentence must be proved to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt.  

The Court also issued an opinion in Salinas v. Texas (No. 12-246), holding that it was permissible for the prosecution at trial to comment on the defendant's pre-arrest silence during questioning.  Last week, the Court also handed down its opinion in United States v. Davila (No. 12-167), holding that when a judge participates in plea negotiations, contrary to Federal Rule of Criminal Procedure 11(c), the defendant's guilty plea need not be vacated if there is no evidence of prejudice.

In Alleyne, a jury had convicted petitioner of using or carrying a firearm in relation to a crime of violence, 18 U.S.C. §924(c)(1)(A).  Under the statute, the mandatory minimum of five years increases to seven if the firearm is "brandished."  The jury indicated on the verdict form that Alleyne had used or carried a firearm, but did not indicate a finding that the firearm was "brandished."  Notwithstanding the verdict form, and over Alleyne's objection, the district court determined the evidence did support a finding of brandishing, and, citing Harris, imposed the mandatory minimum sentence of seven years.  The Court of Appeals affirmed. 

In Harris, the Court held that judicial factfinding that increases the mandatory minimum sentence for a crime is permissible under the Sixth Amendment, in contrast to factfinding that increases the statutory maximum.  In overruling Harris, the 5-4 Alleyne majority found that the distinction between mandatory maximums and minimums is inconsistent with Apprendi v. New Jersey and with the original meaning of the Sixth Amendment.  Writing for the majority Justice Thomas concluded, "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.  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."  The majority also made clear, however, that judges may still find uncharged facts by a preponderance when exercising broad discretion within a statutory range.

For more on Alleyne, Salinas and Davila see these SCOTUSblog posts:
Analysis of Alleyne v. United States
Analysis of Salinas v. Texas
Analysis of United States v. Davila

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