Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Alleyne v. United States : Facts that Increase Mandatory Minimum Sentences Must Be Submitted to Jury

Opinion by: Justice Thomas

The United States Supreme Court decided in Alleyne v. United States (June 2013) that any facts that would increase the mandatory minimum sentence of a crime must be submitted to the jury, overruling Harris v. United States (2002).

In Alleyne, Petitioner was charged, among other offenses, with using or carrying a firearm in relation to a crime of violence, which carries a minimum sentence of 5 years imprisonment. On the verdict, the jury did not indicate a finding that the firearm was “brandished,” which carries a minimum sentence of 7 years. However, the presentence report recommended a 7-year sentence based on the court’s assertion that it had found evidence supporting a finding of brandishing. The District Court relied on Harris, which held that judicial fact finding that increases the mandatory minimum sentence for a crime is permissible under the Sixth Amendment because facts can be a “sentencing factor” rather than an “element of the crime.”

In Apprendi, the court held that a fact is by definition an element of the offense and must be submitted to the jury if it increases the maximum punishment and that the Sixth Amendment requires all offense elements to be proven by a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. Apprendi’s definition of “element” includes, however, not only facts that increase the ceiling, but also those that increase the floor. Harris was a five-four decision that has long been criticized for its inconsistency with the constitutional rule in Apprendi. Now, the U.S. Supreme Court has decided that Harris could not be reconciled with Apprendi.

Therefore, facts that increase the mandatory minimum sentence are elements and must be submitted to the jury and found beyond a reasonable doubt.  

Tuesday, July 2, 2013


The California Court of Appeal of the Fifth Circuit held in In re Cabrera recently that possession of photocopies of drawings signed by prison gang members or associates is not sufficient to establish association with those artists.

Under the Due Process Clause, administrative findings underlying a gang validation resulting in placement in a security housing unit (SHU) must be supported by “some evidence.” This “some evidence” test requires the court to determine whether there is any evidence in the record that could support the conclusion reached by the prison officials. The California Supreme Court asserts that there must be a “rational nexus between the evidence presented and the finding of fact made,” meaning that a decision to place an inmate in a SHU cannot be based on merely a hunch or intuition.

Furthermore, validation of an inmate as an associate of a prison gang requires at least one source item to be a direct link to a current or former member or associate. Although there is no bright-line rule defining what evidence would satisfy the “some evidence” test, case law has provided some guidance in determining the type of evidence that would be considered sufficient and insufficient to establish a direct link to a gang member.

In In re Furnace, the inmate was found in possession of a piece of paper that had the full name, CDCR number, and the housing location of another validated gang member. He was also in possession of a flyer, newspaper articles, compact disc, and book related to support for the Black Guerilla Family prison gang. In that case, the court held that possessing contact information of a validated gang member in addition to other research materials related to that gang’s membership was sufficient under the “some evidence” test to establish a direct link between the inmate and a gang member. However in In re Villa, a recent case decided by the California Court of Appeal, a confidential memorandum based on an interview of a confidential informant was not sufficient to satisfy the “some evidence” test. In that case, the memorandum disclosed testimony from the informant that Villa held a fairly high position with the Mexican Mafia. The reasoning behind that court’s holding was that the evidence only provided for a link to the Mexican Mafia in general, not to a specific person.

Elvin Cabrera is an inmate at California Correctional Institution at Tehachapi (CCI), serving a sentence of 62 years to life in prison for convictions unrelated to gang affiliations. He had also enrolled in a hobby craft program for three years and collected a large quantity of drawings from various artists. Although he was in his cell at the time of an incident involving other inmates from the same yard he was housed in, prison officials conducted operation “Swift Response” which led to the discovery of the two photocopies of drawings signed by Mexican Mafia prison gang members in Cabrera’s possession.

Each drawing contained symbols related to the Mexican Mafia and were signed by a printed first name of the artist. There was no evidence of any contact information about the artist in possession by Cabrera or that he knew how to contact either of them. Thus, the Court found that absent evidence that Cabrera even knew who the gang member artists were or that one was an associate and the other a member, the photocopies were not sufficient under the “some evidence” test to establish a direct link for validation.