The ACLU of Massachusetts and the law firm Foley Hoag LLP have filed a certiorari petition with the U.S. Supreme Court, which asks the Supreme Court to resolve a circuit split regarding whether or when sentences imposed in violation of the right to a jury trial can be affirmed on the ground that they did not impair the defendant’s substantial rights.
Our client Ryan Morris is serving a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence that indisputably violates the Sixth Amendment. The Sixth Amendment generally requires that any fact used to increase a defendant’s mandatory minimum sentence must be found beyond a reasonable doubt by a jury or admitted by the defendant in connection with a guilty plea. Alleyne v. United States, 133 S. Ct. 2151 (2013). In Morris’s case, the sentencing judge violated the jury trial right by imposing a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence based on facts found at sentencing, instead of facts submitted to a jury or admitted by Morris when he pled guilty.
But, on appeal, the First Circuit nevertheless affirmed Mr. Morris’s sentence despite this violation of his right to a jury trial. The court relied on a guess that a hypothetical jury would have convicted Morris if he had gone to trial (which he did not); if Morris had testified at that trial (which is unlikely); and if the question of Morris’s responsibility for 280 grams of cocaine had then been “entrusted to a properly instructed, rational jury” (which it was not).
Our petition argues that the First Circuit’s decision conflicts with the decisions of other federal appellate courts, and that it is simply wrong. The question presented to the Supreme Court is:
Whether the First Circuit erroneously held—in conflict with the Fourth, Sixth, Eighth, and Ninth Circuits, but consistent with the Seventh and Eleventh Circuits—that a mandatory minimum sentence imposed in violation of Alleyne, based on a fact found by a judge by a preponderance of the evidence at sentencing, can be deemed not to have affected the defendant’s substantial rights, if an appellate court concludes that the fact was supported by “overwhelming evidence” offered only at sentencing, but never presented to a jury or admitted by the defendant in connection with a guilty plea.