Fairlie & Lippy, P.C. has won another appeal for one of its clients. In Commonwealth v. Ali, 2015 PA Super. 45, the Pennsylvania Superior Court recognized that the trial court had made three significant errors, and that, as a matter of law, Ali must be afforded the opportunity for a new sentencing. It should be noted that we were not involved in this case prior to sentencing.
On June 13, 2013, Ali was convicted of corrupt organizations, possession with intent to distribute synthetic cannabinoids, delivery of paraphernalia, and criminal conspiracy. At his sentencing hearing, the Court admitted victim testimony from the families of James Crawford and Rachel Witt, victims of a car crash allegedly caused by the use of synthetic marijuana originally sold by Ali. In entering a judgment of sentence, the trial Court applied two further sentencing enhancements due to the circumstances surrounding Ali’s arrest. With the help of Fairlie & Lippy, P.C., Ali appealed. The issues are described below:
(1) The trial court erred in permitting certain, related victim impact testimony to influence sentencing because Ali’s specific criminal convictions were victimless within the meaning of the applicable statute.
Victim impact evidence is designed to show each victim’s uniqueness as a human being. It is a method of informing the sentencing court of the specific harms caused by the defendant’s crime and gives an opportunity for a victim or his or her family to address the court and perhaps find some sort of closure for the crime that he or she had to endure. Nevertheless, the admission of victim impact evidence is tightly controlled by the statute, 42 Pa.C.S. § 9738.
The Court found that Section 9738 is abundantly clear that before victim impact statements may be admitted at a sentencing hearing, there must first be an identifiable victim of the crime for which the defendant was convicted. The trial court had stated that although Ali was not directly responsible for the deaths of Witt and Crawford, it considered the victim impact statements related to their deaths when sentencing Ali because the court believed that they were “connected.” Disagreeing with the lower court, the Superior Court panel held that, because of the unambiguous language of the statute, “a mere link between two distinct events is insufficient to trigger the applicability of section 9738.”
Ali was not convicted of a crime against a person, and it was conceded at trial that Ali did not sell synthetic marijuana to any parties involved in the fatal car accident. As such, there was no identifiable victim or family member eligible to provide an admissible impact statement. Although the Court acknowledged that Witt and Crawford’s deaths were tragic, those individuals were not Ali’s victims under any reasonable reading of the statute and the admission of victim impact statements relating to their deaths was in error.
(2) The trial court erred in applying the school zone sentencing enhancement because a Y.W.C.A. is not an “elementary or secondary school” within the meaning of the applicable statute.
Pursuant to 204 Pa. Code § 303.10(b)(2), the school zone enhancement compels a trial court to consider heightened guideline ranges when “the court determines that the offender manufactured, delivered or possessed with intent to deliver a controlled substance within 250 feet of the real property on which is located a public or private elementary or secondary school.”
At trial, Ali had stipulated that the Y.W.C.A was located within 250 feet of the store where the drug operation was based, that it operated a state-licensed early learning center and daycare, and that it was in operation at the time of Ali’s crimes. Nevertheless, in a matter of first impression, the Superior Court held that neither a daycare facility nor a pre-school falls within the clear language contained in the school zone sentencing enhancement. Comparing the enhancement statute to section 6317, the school zone mandatory minimum, the Court recognized that the school zone enhancement plainly seeks to protect children from the evils of illegal drug dealing on school grounds. However, the judges reasoned that they could not ignore the unambiguous terms used in the enhancement so as to expand the provision to include those areas or locations that are not fairly encompassed by those terms. The Court could accept no reasonable argument that a pre-school or daycare facility could fall within the common definition of an elementary or secondary school.
(3) The trial court erred in applying the youth enhancement because Ali was not an “offender” within the meaning of the statute.
Similar to the school zone enhancement, the youth enhancement requires the trial court to consider elevated guideline ranges in sentencing an individual when the court determines that the offender distributed a controlled substance to a person or persons under the age of 18.
Because Ali was convicted under a theory of accomplice liability, the Court had to consider for the first time whether an accomplice is an “offender” for purposes of the youth enhancement. The Court explicitly held that an accomplice is not an offender under these facts. The express terms of the youth enhancement refer specifically to an “offender.” With no previous case law defining the term, the Court again applied rules of statutory construction before coming to the conclusion that applicable legal definitions define an “offender” as only the primary actor in a crime, not an accomplice or a conspirator. Thus, under the common understanding, an offender and an accomplice are distinct actors. Applying the rule of lenity, applicable in all criminal cases where any doubts in the meaning of statutory language is interpreted in favor of the defendant, the Court concluded that the word “offender” does not incorporate the concept of accomplice liability. Therefore, it was in error for the trial court to have applied the enhancement in Ali’s case.
To speak to a Fairlie & Lippy attorney about how this decision may affect your case, or for a free consultation from one of our successful, experienced attorneys, contact us today.