Pennsylvania Supreme Court Strikes Down Certain Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Laws

Commentary

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Strikes Down Certain Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Laws

Last week, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued an opinion in Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Hopkins that found the state’s Drug Free School Zones Act to be unconstitutional in light of the 2013 United States Supreme Court decision in Alleyne v. United States.

In 2013, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Alleyne v. United States that facts that trigger increased mandatory minimum sentences, such as brandishing a gun during the commission of a crime, must be found to have occurred beyond a reasonable doubt by a jury at trial. The defendant in the case, Allen Alleyne, was convicted by a jury of possessing a gun during a commission of a crime, a crime that carried a five-year mandatory minimum. At sentencing, however, the judge found that he brandished a gun during the commission of a crime, and sentenced him to a seven-year mandatory minimum term of imprisonment. The Supreme Court ruled that this was a violation of Alleyne’s Sixth Amendment rights.

Pennsylvania’s Drug Free School Zones Act required judges to impose an additional two-year mandatory minimum prison sentence if defendants were found to have trafficked drugs in a school zone. However, the law specifically stated that if the commission of the crime occurred in a school zone, that fact is not to be considered an element of the crime (e.g. trafficking drugs), which means that a jury was not required to find this fact true beyond a reasonable doubt. Instead, the law stated that trafficking drugs in a school zone is a sentencing factor, and required judges to determine if it occurred by a preponderance of the evidence (a lower burden of proof than beyond a reasonable doubt) after the defendant was convicted of the underlying offense but before sentencing.

This law, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court found, directly contradicts the United States Supreme Court decision in Alleyne, and as such, was struck down.

The ruling will affect a number of Pennsylvania’s drug- and gun-related mandatory minimum sentencing laws that have language similar to the provisions found unconstitutional in the Drug-Free School Zones Act. It is unclear as to how many individuals’ sentences will affected by this ruling.

In his dissent, Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Correale F. Stevens wrote, “Without mandatory sentences, my concern is that there will be inconsistent sentencing for drug dealers who operate near school property, thereby frustrating the mandatory sentencing penalty put in place by our duly elected legislators.” However, it’s important to make the distinction that laws regarding drug dealing to minors remain in place. Raising the standard by which juries and judges must prove guilt in order to pile on additional years in jail is a small victory for those wrongfully convicted of extra charges, and can make the difference between serving five years in prison and serving seven. By striking down this law, The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has ensured that defendant’s Sixth Amendment rights are protected.

Liz Wolfe is a 2015 Summer Reason Foundation policy intern.