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Mandatory minimum sentence for firearm charge upheld on appeal

In U.S. v Payne, Defendant Payne appealed his sentence for bank robbery and possession of a firearm, arguing that the district court violated his Sixth Amendment rights when it sentenced him to the mandatory minimum sentence on a firearm charge. Payne pleaded guilty to federal crime of bank robbery where he served as the getaway driver, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 2113(a), (d), and one count of possession of a firearm during a crime of violence, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 924(c)(1)(A). He received a 30-month sentence on the bank robbery count and a mandatory minimum 84-month sentence on the firearm count. At his plea hearing where he pleaded guilty to both counts of the indictment, Payne admitted that he had knowingly participated in an armed robbery of a bank.

Based on the fact that one of Payne’s accomplices had pointed a pistol at a bank teller during the robbery, the Presentence Investigation Report (PSR) concluded that Payne was subject to an 84-month mandatory minimum sentence to be served consecutive to his sentence for the bank robbery charge. Because his indictment had not specifically mentioned the brandishing provision of §924(c)(1)(A) and he had never admitted at his plea hearing, he asserted that sentencing him to the mandatory minimum would violate his Fifth Amendment due process rights and his Sixth Amendment rights.

Payne’s primary contention on appeal was that the district court violated his Sixth Amendment rights, when it sentenced him to the mandatory minimum sentence alleging an error under Alleyne v. United States. If an Alleyne error occurred, the court of appeals would vacate Payne’s sentence unless the error was harmless. Under Alleyne, any fact that increases the mandatory minimum sentence for a crime must be admitted by a defendant or be submitted to a jury and found beyond a reasonable doubt evidence. In this case, he did not admit at his plea hearing that the firearm had been brandished during the bank robbery that he committed, because he was waiting in the car for the getaway. Nevertheless the district court sentenced him to a mandatory minimum sentence based on the evidence presented where a bank teller testified that one of the defendants had pointed a pistol in her face during the robbery and the defense didn’t rebut the teller’s testimony.

In doing so the court of appeals found the district court erred under Alleyne because it sentenced Payne to the mandatory minimum. Nevertheless, the district court’s error was harmless beyond a reasonable doubt. As the court of appeals explains with regard of Apprendi error (maximum sentence a judge may impose solely on the basis of the facts reflected in the jury verdict or admitted by defendant), such errors are harmless beyond a reasonable doubt when there is uncontroverted evidence supporting a statutory fact that alters the range of possible sentences a defendant may receive and the same reasoning applies to Alleyne error because is an extension of Apprendi and the government presented uncontroverted evidence that a firearm was brandished during the bank robbery in which Payne participated. That testimony was unrefuted. For the reason stated, the court of appeals affirmed the district court judgment.

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