Friday, August 24, 2018

Another habeas win: Michigan's sentencing practices run contrary to established Supreme Court precedent

In any given week, it is rare to see a Sixth Circuit opinion granting habeas relief. This week's bumper crop of four habeas wins is may set a record. Today's habeas win, Robinson v. Woods, will likely have the most significant implications for other litigants, at least those in Michigan. The opinion holds that one of Michigan's standard sentencing practices is unconstitutional in light of the Supreme Court's 2013 decision in Alleyne.

In Michigan, the state's Department of Corrections prepares a presentence report that calculates a score based on certain offender variables, some of which "do not reflect the mere elements of the offenses for which a defendant was convicted." If adopted by the judge, this score can result in a higher minimum sentence than would have been warranted without those judge-found facts.

The problem with this approach is that the Supreme Court held in Alleyne that it is unconstitutional to to use judge-found facts to increase the defendant's minimum sentence. (The Court's prior decisions in Apprendi and Blakely addressed increased maximum sentences, not minimum sentences.) The Sixth Circuit holds today that Michigan's sentencing scheme violates Alleyne. Strangely enough, the Michigan Supreme Court appears to have reached the same conclusion about its own practices in a 2015 decision, and yet the State of Michigan still argued in this case that the practice was not unconstitutional.

Finally, this case highlights the importance and potential injustice of the Supreme Court's byzantine retroactivity doctrine. The Sixth Circuit has held that Alleyne does not apply retroactively on collateral review because the Court did not expressly make it retroactive, and it is not (1) a "substantive" rule or (2) a "watershed rule of criminal procedure."* See In re Mazzio, 756 F.3d 487 (6th Cir. 2014). The only reason that habeas relief was warranted in this case is that the Supreme Court issued Alleyne approximately one month before the Michigan Court of Appeals issued its opinion in this case, and thus Mr. Robinson's conviction was not yet "final" at the time of Alleyne. Had the Supreme Court waited one month, Mr. Robinson's sentence would still have been unconstitutional, but he would not have been entitled to habeas relief.

*Only a page after its discussion of retroactivity, the Robinson opinion makes this curious statement: "Alleyne was a watershed opinion, overruling two prior precedents . . . ." Taken at face value, that language would suggest that Alleyne should be considered retroactive.

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