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Two New U.S. Supreme Court Criminal Case Decisions

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While many continue to await the U.S. Supreme Court's pending decisions in hot-button, politically charged cases involving gay marriage and the Voting Rights Act, the Court has issued today a couple of decisions involving criminal law and procedure.

In Salinas v. Texas, the Court, with Justice Alito writing for the majority and Justices Thomas and Scalia agreeing in a concurring opinion, ruled in a 5-4 decision that the use by prosecutors of a defendant's silence in response to one potentially-incriminating question during a non-custodial interview with police did not violate the defendant's Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination, after the prosecutors referred to the defendant's previous silence at trial, because the defendant did not specifically invoke his Fifth Amendment rights at the time of the question.

The Court additionally overruled a 2002 decision regarding the interplay between elements of a crime and sentencing factors. In Alleyne v. United States, a Federal jury found that, among other crimes, a defendant had "used or carried" a firearm in conjunction with a crime of violence. The applicable statute regarding the use of a firearm in relation to a violent crime provides a minimum sentence of five years for "using or carrying" and a minimum sentence of seven years if the firearm is "brandished." After the jury found that the defendant had "used or carried" a firearm, the pre-sentence report stated that the defendant had indeed "brandished" his weapon, thereby triggering the seven-year minimum sentence. The district court and the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals found that the alleged "brandishing" simply constituted a sentencing factor. The Supreme Court, with Justice Thomas writing for the majority, disagreed and held that the Sixth Amendment requires any that any fact that increase any mandatory minimum sentence be considered an element of the charged crime, for which a defendant has a right to a jury trial.

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