High court must overturn its ruling on judges

2013-01-23T00:00:00Z High court must overturn its ruling on judges Arizona Daily Star
January 23, 2013 12:00 am

The following editorial appeared Monday in the Los Angeles Times:

Legal scholars long have struggled to determine the proper allocation of authority between judges and juries. But you don't have to be an expert to recognize that Allen Ryan Alleyne was treated unjustly by a federal court in Virginia.

The jury that convicted Alleyne for his role in the armed robbery of a convenience store specifically looked at the question of whether a gun was "brandished" by Alleyne's accomplice, a factor that would trigger a mandatory minimum sentence of seven years for any participant in the crime. The jury concluded that it wasn't (it did agree a gun had been "used or carried"). When the judge sentenced Alleyne, he concluded a gun had been brandished and sentenced him to the mandatory minimum.

Last week, Alleyne's lawyers asked the Supreme Court to set aside that sentence, acknowledging that to do so, the court must overturn its 2002 decision in Harris v. U.S., which allowed judges to determine whether a weapon was brandished.

As a general rule, the court should be cautious about overturning its own precedents. But the Harris decision, a 5-4 ruling, was logically at odds with a landmark ruling handed down two years earlier, Apprendi vs. New Jersey. Overturning Harris would do more than provide relief for Alleyne; it would also clarify that juries, not judges, are responsible for deciding whether a defendant committed a crime.

The Apprendi case concerned a man who fired shots into the home of a black neighbor. A judge had added two years to Charles Apprendi Jr.'s maximum sentence of 10 years after finding that the shooting was racially motivated. The court ruled the question of motivation should have been presented to a jury. Despite that holding, two years later in the Harris case the court said a judge was free to determine that a defendant had brandished a gun and should receive extra punishment.

The Obama administration argues that the Harris case and the punishment imposed on Alleyne are consistent with the Apprendi ruling because they involve mandatory minimum sentences that fall within a sentencing range that would be available to a judge even without the brandishing finding. That's a distinction without a difference. Like Apprendi, Alleyne was sentenced to more time than he otherwise would have served because a judge decided unilaterally that he was guilty of a crime.

The Apprendi ruling didn't give juries total authority over what sentence a convicted defendant receives. Judges may adjust sentences based on a range of factors, including a defendant's prior criminal record. In other words, they may decide whether a punishment fits the criminal as well as the crime. But whether a crime was committed is for the jury, not the judge, to determine.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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