The Supreme Court ruled Monday that juries must be consulted on any evidence that might lead to the triggering of a mandatory minimum prison sentence, striking down an earlier ruling that allowed judges to make that determination on their own.

The court's findings in Alleyne v. United States (PDF) hold that the mere presence of a gun during a robbery is not enough to prove that it was "brandished," a key legal threshold that gave a Virginia judge the impetus to overrule a jury and slap a man with an eight-year mandatory minimum prison sentence over a convenience store heist, when he would have otherwise faced just five years behind bars.

That judge overruled the jury's finding that the man did not brandish a weapon based upon the Supreme Court's 2002 ruling in Harris v. United States, which gave judges wider discretion to determine what evidence juries would consider when a subject faces a potentially heightened prison term based upon the merits of the case.

The Supreme Court's ruling Monday essentially overrules the decision in Harris and sides with an even earlier ruling, Apprendi v. New Jersey from 1996, which held that any facts which may increase a sentence must be proved to and weighed by a jury.

The challenge to Harris was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and The Sentencing Project. In an amicus brief (PDF) to the Supreme Court, the ACLU argued that overturning Harris would not only reduce mandatory minimum sentences in crimes like robbery, it would also drive those numbers down for drug crimes as well.

"Overruling Harris will require drug quantity to be charged in an indictment and proved to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt to establish both the mandatory minimum and the statutory maximum," they explained.

"Mandatory minimum sentences are a significant driver of racial disparity in sentencing," the ACLU added. "Overruling Harris will mean that drug quantity is charged and proved in fewer cases and will thus lead to fewer mandatory minimum sentences. Because a higher percentage of black defendants are subjected to mandatory minimums, fewer mandatory minimum sentences will reduce unwarranted racial disparity in sentencing."

Justices Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Sonya Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer agreed that the apparent contradiction between Harris and Apprendi had to be resolved, so they found for the petitioner and vacated a ruling by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals that affirmed the eight-year prison sentence.

In doing so, the court's 5-4 majority has likely spared thousands of future convicts the inevitability of lengthy prison terms, placing their fate in the hands of juries, and not purely upon the judge's discretion.


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