Supreme Court Rules Machine Gun 30-Mandatory Minimum Cannot Apply Without Jury Say So

For Immediate Release

Families Against Mandatory Minimums
Contact: 

Monica Pratt Raffanel, media@famm.org

Supreme Court Rules Machine Gun 30-Mandatory Minimum Cannot Apply Without Jury Say So

WASHINGTON - In a victory for defendants and advocates,
the U.S. Supreme Court today ruled in United States v. O’Brien, et al.
(No 08-1569) that a punitive 30-year mandatory minimum sentence for
offenses involving a machine gun may not be imposed unless the
defendant is indicted and found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt by a
jury of using a machine gun.

A unanimous court rejected the government’s position that
the machine gun provision is merely a “sentencing factor.” 
Sentencing factors direct judges to increase sentences for
things the defendant was not charged with and the jury never considered. 
In this case, had the government won, it would mean that a court
would be required to impose a mandatory minimum of 30 years if it found
at sentencing that a machine gun was more likely than not present in
the case. Instead, the Supreme Court ruled the machine gun is an
“element” of a separate offense that the government must charge in an
indictment and prove to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt before the
30-year mandatory minimum must be imposed. The case is
United States v. O’Brien and Burgess (No. 08-1569).

“The
Court got it right,” said Mary Price, vice president and general
counsel of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM). “The government
admitted it could not prove Mr. O’Brien had a machine gun.
 The court has ruled that the government may not try to
sneak the fact in at sentencing and force the judge to sentence the
defendant to three decades for a crime the prosecutor could not prove.”

Price also noted that Justices Thomas and Stevens took the
opportunity to point out that all
facts that trigger mandatory minimums should be treated as offense
elements that must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury. They
took issue in separate concurrences today with the ruling in Harris v. United States, a 2004 case in which FAMM participated.  
In Harris, a slim majority of the court found that while
several mandatory minimums in the gun statute depend on mere sentencing
factors, they still must be imposed
 even though the jury need not find the facts that
trigger them. “FAMM agrees with Justices Thomas and Stevens that
mandatory minimums can never be imposed on a defendant unless he has
the constitutional safeguards of notice and jury findings.”

Together with the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers,
FAMM filed an amicus brief that further explains why the machine gun
provision cannot constitutionally be considered other than an offense
element. Price also attended oral arguments in the O’Brien case.  

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More information is available at FAMM’s website, www.famm.org.

Families Against Mandatory Minimums is a national nonprofit, nonpartisan organization supporting fair and proportionate sentencing laws that allow judicial discretion while maintaining public safety. For more information on FAMM, visit http://www.famm.org/ or contact media@famm.org.

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