The Supreme Court’s 2012 Term started big and it will finish big. The finish to this Term will include decisions regarding same-sex marriage, affirmative action, and the Voting Rights Act cases. And if that wasn’t enough, there are a number of interesting criminal cases that the Court will decide before the end of June.
There is a pair of federal sentencing cases that could have a huge impact. The first is Alleyne v. United States, which raises a simple question of whether the Court’s decision in Harris v. United States, holding that the Constitution does not require facts which increase a mandatory minimum sentence to be determined by a jury, should be overruled. (The Petitioner’s brief can be found here.)
Overruling Harris could have enormous consequences for federal sentencing outside the four walls of Alleyne, especially if the Court would hold that any fact mandating greater punishment needs to be proved to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt under the Apprendi v. New Jersey, 530 U.S. 466 (2000), line of cases. The reason that such a holding could throw the federal sentence into disarray (albeit in a good way for those wanting sentencing reform) is because it would require the government to prove facts necessary to sentence a criminal defendant under a mandatory minimum statute. Currently, the government employs a broad swath of federal statutes for which it seeks mandatory minimum sentences. So, basically, overruling Harris would require the government to work harder to impose a mandatory minimum sentence on criminal defendants.
Another important federal sentencing case is Peugh v. United States. In that case, the question is whether a sentencing court violates the Ex Post Facto Clause by using the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines in effect at the time of sentencing rather than the Guidelines in effect at the time of the offense, if the newer Guidelines create a significant risk that the defendant will receive a longer sentence.
This precise scenario happens more than one would think. The U.S. Sentencing Commission (who writes the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines) routinely amends and creates new Guidelines on their own and in response to legislation from Congress. The result of these amendments, for the most part, has been to increase, not decrease, the terms of imprisonment handed down by sentencing judges.
So what will happen is that a defendant will commit a crime carrying a 5-year sentence under the Guidelines. With delays and continuances factored in, the defendant may not be sentenced for several years after she or he is charged. By that time, the Sentencing Commission may have amended the Guidelines to provide for an 8-year sentence for the same crime.
If the Court rules that such a scheme does not violate the Ex Post Facto Clause, then defense attorneys will need to think hard about whether prolonging a case with continuances is in their client’s best interest. For if they prolong a case, they run the risk that the Sentencing Commission will increase the amount of time that the Guidelines will recommend for their client.
In Missouri v. McNeely, the Court will decide whether the exigency exception to the warrant requirement applies to the taking of warrantless blood samples from a suspected drunk driver. Given that drunk driving arrests total over 1 million each year, the result in McNeely could have broad impact on law enforcements’ interactions with motorists.
Perhaps no case on the Court’s docket is as horrific as that in Boyer v. Louisiana. Although the case is technically one brought under the Sixth Amendment Speedy Trial Clause, it is at bottom a case about access to justice. The case involves a capital defendant who asked for his case to be dismissed on speedy trial grounds because the state has failed to try him for over 5 years. The reason for the delay: the state did not provide the funds needed for Boyer’s criminal defense attorneys. The Court has been asked to decide whether the state’s delay should be imputed to the prosecutors, ultimately requiring a dismissal of the case.
No matter whether you are for or against the death penalty, the delays brought in this case (which have essentially delayed justice) should disturb you.