U.S. Supreme Court splits 5-4 on firearm sentencing ruling

U.S. Supreme Court splits 5-4 on firearm sentencing ruling

A splintered U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in Harris v. United States that a judge rather than a jury can determine that a defendant was using a firearm during the commission of a crime and thereby increase the mandatory minimum sentence. Interestingly, two years ago in Apprendi v. New Jersey, the Court ruled 5-4 that a defendant may not be exposed to a sentence longer than what he would receive based on the facts found by a jury. In other words, judges could not determine facts that enhanced or lengthened a criminal sentence.

The Court, feeling it did not violate the Apprendi precedent because a minimum sentence was increased, not a maximum, upheld a mandatory minimum seven-year prison sentence given William J. Harris, who pled guilty to selling marijuana in his North Carolina pawn shop. During the sale, he was wearing a holstered pistol.

Under federal sentencing law, “brandishing” a firearm carries a seven-year mandatory minimum sentence, while “carrying” draws at least five years. In a dissenting opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas noted that “The range of punishment to which … Harris was exposed turned on the fact that he brandished a firearm, a fact that was neither charged in his indictment nor proved at trial beyond a reasonable doubt.” justice Thomas declared that “Facts that trigger an increased mandatory minimum sentence warrant constitutional safeguards.”

Copyright National Rifle Association of America Sep 2002

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