Mandatory Minimum Sentencing

PA Superior Court: Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Statue Unconstitutional

Last week, the Pennsylvania Superior Court ruled that mandatory minimum sentencing statutes are unconstitutional. A mandatory minimum sentence is the minimum time a judge must sentence a defendant to serve if the defendant is found guilty. In 2013 the United States Supreme Court held in Alleyne v. United States that all facts that increase a mandatory minimum sentence must be submitted to a jury and found true beyond a reasonable doubt. After Alleyne, many state mandatory minimum sentencing procedures were rendered unconstitutional. Pennsylvania is one of those states. That is because Pennsylvania allowed judges to impose a mandatory minimum sentence after the judge found certain facts to be true by a preponderance of the evidence.

In the wake of Alleyne, many Pennsylvania Courts of Common Pleas have held that nearly all of Pennsylvania’s mandatory minimum sentences are unconstitutional, echoing Alleyne’s holding that mandatory minimum sentences are elements of the crime that must be submitted to the jury at trial. The holdings of the Common Pleas Courts are not, however, binding across the state. Finally, on August 20, 2014, the Pennsylvania Superior Court weighed in.

In Commonwealth v. Newman, the Superior Court held that Pennsylvania’s sentencing practice under 42 Pa.C.S. § 9712.1 is unconstitutional following Alleyne. Newman was arrested after the police conducted several controlled drug buys and then executed a search warrant at Newman’s apartment. Inside, they found a “large quantity” of crack cocaine, drug paraphernalia, and a handgun located “in close proximity” to the drugs. At trial, he was found guilty of possession with intent to deliver and other crimes. The Commonwealth sought a mandatory minimum sentence of 5-10 years under 42 Pa. C.S. §9712.1, which authorizes a mandatory minimum sentence when a gun is found on a drug dealer, an accomplice, or near the drugs. Newman was subsequently sentenced to 5-10 years. He appealed and his sentence was affirmed five days before the Alleyne decision was handed down. After the Alleyne decision was issued, Newman filed a petition for reconsideration, and the Superior Court granted rehearing en banc.

On rehearing, the Superior Court examined Pennsylvania’s current mandatory minimum sentencing scheme in light of the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Alleyne, and vacated Newman’s sentence after finding Pennsylvania’s practice unconstitutional. The Superior Court held that whether the gun was “in close proximity” of the drugs was an element of the crime to be decided beyond a reasonable doubt by the jury in order to trigger the mandatory minimum sentencing statute. The Superior Court also held that Alleyne is retroactive, meaning that individuals who received mandatory minimum sentences prior to the decision are still eligible for relief under Alleyne. Although the Commonwealth argued that only part of the statute could be considered unconstitutional and the rest should be allowed to stand, the Superior Court discussed the findings of the various Courts of Common Pleas and noted that the provisions of 42 Pa. C.S. §9712.1 were inextricably linked such that the statute as a whole was unconstitutional. In the Court’s words, “The very trial courts entrusted with the imposition of mandatory minimum sentences after Alleyne have found Section 9712.1 as a whole to be no longer workable[.]”

While the Superior Court’s ruling in Newman specifically concerns the mandatory minimum sentence for drug-related gun charges, the decision will likely have a much broader impact that affects other mandatory minimum sentencing statutes. One example is 18 Pa. C.S. § 6317, the Drug-Free School Zones Act. While Alleyne made it clear that “the core crime and the fact triggering the mandatory minimum sentence together constitute a new, aggravated crime, [and] each element of which must be submitted to the jury,” the Pennsylvania Legislature has expressly stated that the proximity to a school zone of any alleged violation of 35 P.S. § 780-113(30) “shall not be an element of the crime.” Thus, the Alleyne decision almost certainly renders 18 Pa. C.S. § 6317 unconstitutional. That battle is currently being played out as several cases are on direct appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court after the statute was found unconstitutional in several Courts of Common Pleas across the state.

In any event, the Newman decision is certainly a victory for defendants facing potential mandatory minimum sentences as well as those who were sentenced under the now-unconstitutional standard applied before Newman. Defendants are not the only ones celebrating though, as mandatory minimums have also received much criticism for removing judges’ sentencing discretion and handing it to district attorneys. The Commonwealth has thirty days to appeal the Newman decision to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

If you are facing a potential mandatory minimum sentence, or have received a mandatory minimum sentence in the last year, please contact Masorti Law Group to see if we can help.