Aug 5, 2015

Sentencing Guidelines Abandoned as Unconstitutional

Lockridge with Attorney Jerry Sabbota
Long-challenged in other states and repeatedly addressed at the SCOTUS, the Michigan Supreme Court finally abandoned the state legislature's attempt at a mandatory indeterminate sentencing scheme in favor of giving sentencing judges more powers.

The case that got the ball rolling back in 2013 was a homicide case -of course- from right here in Oakland County. In People v Lockridge, defendant was jury convicted of the involuntary manslaughter of his wife and faced sentencing guidelines of 43 to 86 months.

Sentencing Judge Nanci Grant found "substantial and compelling" reasons to deviate from the guidelines: Lockridge killed his wife in front of their 3 young children, leaving her corpse among them; he had a probation violation, and was involved in at least one other incident of domestic violence. Judge Grant thus sentenced Lockridge to 96-months to 15-years; on appeal, both the scoring of defendant's original guidelines as well as Judge Grant's deviation therefrom were challenged.

The Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment of sentence, but the Michigan Supreme Court agreed to take a look. While Lockridge's appeals were pending, an interesting thing happened: the SCOTUS decided Alleyne v United States which held that a judgment of sentence could not be based on a fact that: a) defendant did not admit or, b) was determined to exist beyond a reasonable doubt by a jury.

In last week's opinion, the Supreme Court, addressing defendant's Alleyne challenge to his sentence, held that Michigan's mandatory sentencing guidelines were unconstitutional based on precedent from the United States Supreme Court. Our High Court ruled that so long as Michigan's sentencing process requires trial judges to make findings of fact to which a defendant does not confess or that a jury did not determine beyond a reasonable doubt, that process was unconstitutional.

Scrapping the sentencing guidelines, the Supreme Court further mandated that sentencing judges must now treat the sentencing guidelines as "advisory only". The basis of the abandonment of the sentencing guidelines is that it forces judges to utilize facts in fashioning a sentence that were not in evidence at a trial, or admitted by a defendant, all in violation of the defendant's Sixth Amendment right to a trial by jury.

Conservative Justices Stephen Markman and Brian Zahra dissented, stating that whenever a defendant is jury convicted, that defendant is subject to serving the maximum statutory sentence therefore, the Sixth Amendment's jury trial requirement is not offended. As criminal defense lawyers, however, we rarely conceive a criminal charge in terms of the statutory maximum sentence; to do so puts form over substance and does not take into account the reality of a contemporary sentencing hearing.

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