Of safety valves and the Sixth Amendment

United States v. King, No. 14-10146 (5th Cir. Dec. 4, 2014).

Last year, in Alleyne v. United States, the Supreme Court ruled that any fact that increases a mandatory minimum prison sentence has to be found to be true by a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. Or, to put it differently, judges don’t have the power to increase mandatory minimums by finding facts on their own. Under the Sixth Amendment, it’s the jury and not the judge who has that power. 

The question in this appeal is whether it violates the Sixth Amendment for a judge to decide not to apply the so-called “safety valve” based on facts that the judge—and not the jury—has found. Now, the safety valve is a law that allows certain low-level drug offenders to escape mandatory minimum sentences that would otherwise apply to them. Here, the district court determined that the safety valve didn’t apply because it found that the defendant had “possessed a firearm in connection with the offense.” 

The Fifth Circuit holds that this practice doesn’t violate the Constitution. The Supreme Court, says the Fifth Circuit, ruled that a court can’t increase a mandatory minimum based on judge-found facts. It didn’t say that a court couldn’t refuse to lower a mandatory minimum based on judge-found facts. I doubt that this distinction seems very convincing to the defendant here. As far as he’s concerned, after all, he has to spend more years in prison than he otherwise would because of facts the judge found.