Statutory mandatory minimum sentencing provisions are controversial nationwide. These laws take away discretion from judges in sentencing and prevent defendants from arguing for factors that serve to mitigate a person’s sentence. In Pennsylvania, the criminal code provides for mandatory minimum terms of particular crimes involving drugs, firearms, violent offenses, and sex crimes involving children and elderly individuals. Prosecutors in Pennsylvania, who sought mandatory minimums, were only required to provide notice to the court and the defense.
Decision on School Zone Law
Last year, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court issued an opinion declaring unconstitutional the state’s enhanced sentencing scheme for drug offenses committed close to a school. A divided court issued a 3-2 decision that rolls back a controversial law passed in the 90s, holding that there were illegal flaws in the way the Pennsylvania legislature imposed the school zone law. The school zone criminal statute, in this case, is one of the mandatory minimum sentencing provisions that prosecutors have used for a long time to take discretion away from judges and achieve long prison sentences for drug, firearms, and violent offenses. The Court’s decision has the effect of invalidating many of those provisions and will necessitate legislation to avoid confusion. Two dissenting voices on the court argued that the majority could have saved the school zone rules and that majority decision was ignoring the legislature’s intent of facilitating consistent sentencing.
The case that brought the result about was a 2013 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court holding that any fact on which a mandatory minimum sentence relies on has to be decided by a jury. These facts depend on the statute, and may include the amount of drugs involved, or the presence of a firearm. Many of Pennsylvania’s mandatory minimum laws leave those findings to the discretion of judges with a required standard of proof that is lower than the beyond a reasonable doubt standard.
Up to the Jury
According to the majority decision, the 2-year mandatory minimum provision for distributing drugs near a school could not be applied in a constitutional fashion The underlying case involved a Chester County defendant whom the district attorney charged with dealing heroin in a school zone. The trial court judge agreed with public defenders that the mandatory minimum law was unconstitutional. On appeal, the district attorney argued that it could save the law by just ordering the trial court to provide a verdict slip to the jury for it to decide whether the defendant dealt drugs within a 1,000-foot radius of the school.
The decision does not affect some of Pennsylvania’s mandatory minimum laws which already require a jury to decide. Under Pennsylvania criminal code, first and second-degree homicide can still bring a minimum sentence of life in prison. The code still requires that vehicular homicide while under the influence of drugs or alcohol be punishable by at least three years of jail time. Additionally, the code provides that the manufacturing of methamphetamine is still subject to at least two years in prison.
Additionally, the U.S. Supreme Court decision stated an exception for mandatory minimum laws that involve consideration of a defendant’s prior criminal history. Therefore, in Pennsylvania, decisions for those mandatory sentences remain in judges’ hands, and that the statutes dealing with repeat offenders and three-strikes provisions are still constitutional.
If you are facing criminal charges anywhere in the Central Pennsylvania area, you should contact the law firm of Coover & Associates by calling 717-461-7789 for a free initial case evaluation. We have extensive experience in criminal cases and can provide you with advice on how to mount an effective defense. You can also contact Coover & Associates by submitting our online message form.