Allen Alleyne and an accomplice robbed the manager of a convenience store as the manager was leaving to make a bank deposit. Both Alleyne and his accomplice carried guns. After tricking the manager into stopping his car, Alleyne’s accomplice approached the manager, pressed a gun to his head, and demanded the cash the manager was carrying. The manager complied and both suspects fled the scene. Alleyne was later arrested and charged with two crimes, one for the robbery itself and another for using a firearm during a robbery. At trial the jury was asked to decide two critical questions, did Alleyne carry or use a weapon during the robbery and did he discharge that weapon. The jury found beyond a reasonable doubt that he had carried or used a weapon during the robbery, but made no determination as to the second question.
Under applicable federal law, the sentence for robbery changes when a firearm enters the picture. For a carrying a gun, a defendant faces 5 years, for brandishing a gun, 7 years, and longer still for actually discharging a gun. During Alleyne’s sentencing hearing the judge decided, on a preponderance of the evidence (meaning more than 50% likely), that Alleyne had actually brandished his weapon and accordingly imposed the 7 year enhanced sentence. Alleyne appealed, arguing that the sentence violated his Sixth Amendment rights because this fact had never been properly submitted to the jury. The case eventually wound its way to the U.S. Supreme Court – but let’s backup for a second.