U.S. Supreme Makes it More Difficult for Federal Judges to Impose Mandatory Minimum Sentences

Federal medical marijuana defendants and those who are particularly vulnerable to federal prosecution can now breathe a little bit easier. On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a 5-4 decision in the case of Alleyne v. United States, which has put juries more in control of mandatory minimum sentencing decisions. The Alleyne Court held that because mandatory minimum sentences increase the penalty for a crime, any fact that is necessary to impose the mandatory minimum must be proven to the jury. This decision will not impact every federal medical marijuana case, but it will raise the burden of proof the federal government must bear in order to impose mandatory minimum sentence on patients and providers.

Legal History

Previously, in Apprendi vs. New Jersey (2000), the Supreme Court ruled that under the Sixth Amendment, any fact which could increase the maximum sentence must fact proven to the jury beyond a reasonable amount. However, Apprendi only applied to statutory maximums rather than mandatory minimum sentences.

Not long after Apprendi, the Supreme Court addressed mandatory minimums in Harris vs. United States (2002), but instead of extending Apprendi to mandatory minimums, it held that defendants do not have the right to have facts that would trigger a higher mandatory minimum to be proven to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. Instead, a judge could bring in facts that the jury never found to be proven. Worse still, the standard of evidence under Apprendi was merely a "preponderance of evidence", which simply means greater than a 50% chance of being true, and being far weaker than the standard of "beyond a reasonable doubt." (For a more detailed comparison between these cases, SCOTUSblog does an outstanding job explaining these nuances.)

New Legal Precedent 

For medical marijuana defendants, who are often subjected to harsh federal mandatory minimum sentencing, all of the facts that can trigger a mandatory minimum sentence now must be heard by a jury. For example, under the old Harris rule, a jury could find a medical marijuana defendant guilty of cultivating less than 50 plants, which carries no mandatory minimum, but a judge could decide during sentencing that there was a preponderance of evidence to suggest the defendant was cultivating more than 50 plants and possibly impose stiffer mandatory sentence as a result. Under the new Alleyne rule, the court has held that it is a violation of the Sixth Amendment to allow judges to consider facts that they jury did not agree were proven.

By reconciling mandatory minimum sentences with the Sixth Amendment interpretation in Apprendi, federal prosecutors will now have to work harder to impose mandatory minimum sentences in their crackdown on medical marijuana.