No More Mandatory Minimun Prison Sentences for Guns and Drugs

In the 1980s and early 1990s firearm related murders and the war against drugs were sweeping across the country. These social problems prompted Pennsylvania’s legislature to pass mandatory minimum criminal sentencing statutes. A mandatory minimum prison sentence becomes the statutorily mandated minimum prison time to which a sentencing judge must sentence a defendant convicted of committing certain criminal offenses. In passing these laws, Pennsylvania’s legislature took away the judge’s sentencing discretion, asserting that it better knew what was good for both the community and the specific defendant sitting before the sentencing court.

Pennsylvania’s mandatory minimum sentencing provisions apply in cases when a defendant is found guilty of 1) possessing or selling more than a certain amount or weight of any illegal drug, 2) uses or possesses a gun during drug selling or committing other types of crimes, or 3) sexually assaulting a victim below certain ages. Additional gun and drug mandatory minimum sentencing enhancements apply if a defendant possessed these items in close proximity to schools.

Pennsylvania’s mandatory minimum sentencing scheme require the judge, not jury, to increase the mandatory minimum aspect of a felon’s sentence if certain conditions were met. The judge, not the jury, determine if the conditions precedent were met, in a separate sentencing hearing, and the prosecutor’s burden of proof is by a “preponderance of the evidence,” not beyond a reasonable doubt.

As of October 2014, these mandatory minimum sentence provisions are now unconstitutional. In 2013 the United States Supreme Court ruled that in every criminal case, the jury, not judge, must determine beyond a reasonable doubt every element upon which a state or federal defendant’s sentence is based. The Alleyne case states Pennsylvania’s sentencing process in mandatory minimum cases violates a defendant’s constitutional right to a jury trial. The court states that such procedures are unconstitutional because the judge, not a jury, on a lower burden of proof, employs evidence not weighed by the jury, to increase a defendant’s mandatory minimum prison sentence.

In Commonwealth vs. Newman, 99 A.3d 86 (August 2014), and Commonwealth v. Valentine, 2014 PA Lexus 3420 (October 3, 2014), Pennsylvania’s intermediate appellate court, addressed Alleyne as it applied to Pennsylvania’s drug and gun mandatory minimum sentencing procedures, finding them unconstitutional.

In each case, the District Attorney’s Office submitted the to the jury the facts comprising the legal basis to trigger the mandatory minimum sentences. (This was in response to Alleyne’s dictates of jury, not judge, deciding sentencing facts.)  For example, in the gun and drug cases, the jury was given a questionnaire asking if the defendant specifically possessed a firearm or sold a certain amount of drugs. The jury would then be asked if the defendant possessed that firearm in the course of selling drugs or within so many feet of a school. As the jury on the verdict sheet answered yes to these questions, the Commonwealth sought the court, not the jury, to impose the mandatory minimum sentencing provisions.

Valentine and Newman objected to this procedure. The defendants objected to the judge instructing and allowing the jury to make factual findings that the legislature specifically intended the court, not the jury, to make. They argued, and Superior Court agree, that the mandatory minimum sentencing provisions involving guns were unconstitutional pursuant to Alleyne because it required the judge, not the jury, to make the decision of guilty of the aggravating facts warranting imposition of an otherwise high sentence.

The courts also ruled that because the legislature commanded the judge to make these findings (now an impermissible process after Alleyne) the judge could not correct that process by having the jury determine the factual issues upon with the higher sentence cold be based. The courts ruled that in allowing the jury to determine the presence of aggravating facts, the judge was abdicating his judicial function, regardless of whether such is now illegal, to the jury. This too was impermissible.

Because Pennsylvania’s legislature specifically required the sentencing judge to make certain findings of fact, to a lower evidentiary burden of proof then the Alleyne, and judges can not abdicate his/her legislative responsibilities accordingly, the entire statutory scheme was determined to be unconstitutional.

This is a significant win for many defendants. While there are many sentencing provisions that will allow for sentencing enhancements, the elimination of mandatory minimum sentence allows for greater judicial discretion for the judges assigned to handle the case. Please call me to discuss your matter

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