Supreme Court

Clarence Thomas Joins Supreme Court's Liberals in Securing Jury Trial Rights for Criminal Defendants


In a significant decision handed down today by the U.S. Supreme Court, Justice Clarence Thomas, writing for a 5-4 majority that included the Court's four most liberal justices, held that the Sixth Amendment right to a trial by jury was violated when a judge recommended a mandatory minimum sentence based on a factual finding that had not been reached by the jury.

The case of Alleyne v. United States arose out of an armed robbery committed by Allen Ryan Alleyne and an accomplice. According to federal law, anyone who "uses or carries a firearm" while committing a "crime of violence" is subject to a mandatory minimum sentence of seven years in prison "if the firearm is brandished" and five years if it is not. The jury that convicted Alleyne did not find that he "brandished" a weapon. However, the trial judge in the case still recommended a seven-year sentence.

Pointing to "the historic role of the jury as an intermediary between the State and criminal defendants," Justice Thomas declared the judge's actions to be in violation of Alleyne's constitutional rights. "The essential Sixth Amendment inquiry is whether a fact is an element of the crime," Thomas wrote. "When a finding of fact alters the legally prescribed punishment so as to aggravate it, the fact necessarily forms a constituent part of a new offense and must be submitted to the jury."

This ruling is likely to have major ramifications for all criminal suspects facing mandatory minimum sentences.

NEXT: Jury Selection Continues in George Zimmerman Trial

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  1. Quick, get some asset forfeiture and/or “administrative law” cases in front of him before he “comes to his senses”!

  2. Clarence Thomas might start to like his new role of swing vote.

  3. Alito’s dissent had a 3 page long footnote.

    At that point, it seems you should move it out of the foot and into its own section.

    1. More like a Legnote at that point, amirite?

      1. What do you do if you want to clarify something in a footnote? A toenote?

  4. Skimming quickly, both sides have legit arguments, I think. I come down on the Thomas side, but its close and I can see going the other way.

  5. This ruling is likely to have major ramifications for all criminal suspects facing mandatory minimum sentences.

    Why? Seems rather inconsequential to me.

    1. It requires a little more work for prosecutors/juries now.

    2. It will have ramifications because right now it doesn’t matter if the jury finds affirmatively on every element. The judge just concludes for them on any sentence enhancers they don’t find on. Now, the jury will have to find beyond a reasonable doubt the sentence enhancer. And if they don’t or forget to mention it in the findings, the judge can’t find it for them.

      Before this decision the tie went to the government. Now, the tie goes to the accused. That will make a difference in a lot of cases.

      Think about this case. It is easy to find that he did it and that he had a gun. But finding that he “brandished it” is probably a bit harder. People forget things. Maybe the victim is confused and just say the gun but the guy never pointed it at him. It can be hard to prove elements like that.

      1. Still, it seems more like a nit-picky procedural issue than some sort of ground-breaking paradigm shift that Damon is implying.

        1. Sometimes procedures make a lot of difference. You are looking at a difference of two years in sentence over this issue in this case.

          Before this, prosecutors can charge any sentence enhancers they want and not worry about proving them beyond a reasonable doubt. They could depend on the judge giving them whatever they wanted. Now, they have to get a jury to find beyond a reasonable doubt any enhancers they charge. That makes a difference.

          1. Of course, it doesnt stop the judges from sentencing as the prosecutors want anyway.

            This case, the sentence was 5 to life. He could still give 7 even without the brandishing add on.

            1. But you have a jury case, the jury decides the punishment. The SCOTUS killed off that little game a few years ago. So the judge can go get fucked. He won’t determine the sentence when the case is before a jury. The jury will.

              1. Umm…what?

                In this case in particular, the judge was sentencing, not the jury.

                1. You are right. I remembered the Booker case of a few years ago wrong. The judge does sentence. But the judge can’t just pull a figure out of his ass. Every federal crime has a sentence range and specific factors that have to be proven in court to bring the sentence up or down within the range.

                  With first Booker and now this, judges cannot make judicial findings of sentence enhancers. They are stuck with whatever facts the jury finds and no more. Without those findings of fact, the judge can’t raise the sentence up within the range. They can, but it won’t stand on appeal.

                  So yes, this is a big deal.

  6. Yet another 5-4 decision.

    How about we get congress to change the law so there are 10 justices and if a 5-5 “decision” is reached they flip a coin. 8-(

    1. 15 justices, and if any 3 agree a law is unconstitutional it gets struck down.

      1. 100 justices, and Americans can text each week to CONSTI2SHN to decide which ten get eliminated from each case.

      2. Not bad. Whence your numbers?

    2. The vast majority (something like 75-80%) of SCOTUS decisions are 9-0. It just happens that the more prominent, media-friendly ones tend to be closer (though not always, see the 9-0 decision in the gene patents case last week).

      1. All 3 decisions that day were 9-0.

        1. There was a Redskins game on.

  7. Maybe we ought to have the jury vote on the sentence also. Either they agree with it or it goes back to the judge for a redo.

  8. Today, Clarence Thomas is a little more black.

    /Team BLUE

    1. Black and Blue. Like that shitty Van Halen song.

  9. Fucking Scalia. Why did you come down against the Constitutionally guaranteed right to a jury trial on this one? You’re the strictest interpreter of the document on the court yet this one snuck by you?

    1. Inconsistent jurist is inconsistent.

      Never leave your freedom to 9 in black robes anyone besides yourself.

    2. A lot of the time it depends. I find Scalia fascinating since he talks quite well about a lot of Constitutional issues but is so bafflingly off on others – sometimes even the ones he talks well about.

      He’d probably say that at sentencing the trial is over, therefore the right to trial by jury is not affected. Or something.

  10. It requires a little more work for prosecutors/juries now.

    Whoa, whoa, whoa.

    Expecting a prosecutor to prove his/her case in front of a jury, instead of bludgeoning the accused into accepting a plea bargain?

    1. Oh, that’s gonna continue apace. The police union assures me they will continue to overcharge the POS’s to ensure plea bargains are the status quo for a guy who was drunk and mouthed off but was charged with drunk in public, resisting with force, resisting without force, obstruction of justice, making a false statement, assault of a peace officer, simple battery of a peace officer, willful destruction of police property, vandalism, etc, etc, etc…

  11. “According to federal law, anyone who “uses or carries a firearm” while committing a “crime of violence” is subject to a mandatory minimum sentence of seven years in prison “if the firearm is brandished” and five years if it is not.”

    I have a dumb question.

    Where exactly in the Constitution is Congress granted the authority to enact this law?

    Let me guess… Commerce Clause?

    1. Put on the Ben Franklin special glasses and you’ll see it right there under the clause that says Constitutional Rights do not apply in public schools.

    2. It’s the “fuck you, that’s why” clause.

    3. I believe the authority is enshrined in the “Good and Hard” clause.

  12. This is truly a great SCOTUS decision.
    The govt(s) have been running fast and furious with sentencing enhancements on findings of fact that were never found by a jury.

    It is a lot easier for a judge to find a fact to be true by a 50% chance of probability, which the standard for sentencing determinations, then for a jury beyond a reasonable doubt at 95%.

    If my memory serves, this is a more explicit statement of another SCOTUS decision handed down about 4 years ago on factually based sentencing enhancements.

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