PA SUPREME COURT: Drug Mandatory Minimums Unconstitutional, Non-severable

Filed under: Drug Crimes, News by Contributor @ June 16, 2015

In a groundbreaking 3-2 decision, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decided this week in Commonwealth v. Hopkins,  that 18 Pa.C.S. § 6317, the drug-free school zone statute, is unconstitutional and non-severable pursuant to United States v. Alleyne, 133 S.Ct. 2151 (2013).

Section 6317 of the Crimes Code requires additional, mandatory minimum two-year sentences for adults convicted of drug crimes occurring within 1,000 feet of a school or 250 feet of a bus stop or playground.   These geographical factors are categorized as sentencing factors rather than elements of the crime.  This is an important distinction.  As a sentencing factor, the Commonwealth is not required to prove the distance at trial.  In fact, the factor was designed to be decided by a judge on a lower standard of proof from the venerable “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt” that is central to the criminal justice system.

Alleyne held that when a mandatory minimum sentence is based on judicial fact-finding of a “sentencing factor,” the “sentencing factor” is in reality an element of a distinct and aggravated crime that must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.  Alleyne left no doubt that  section 6317, which establishes the sentencing factor regime for school-zone drug crimes, is unconstitutional.    The Commonwealth conceded as much, arguing only that the unconstitutional portions of the law are severable from the rest of the statute.  A plurality of the Court disagreed with that assessment.

This appeal was brought by the Chester County Public Defenders Office.  The Pennsylvania Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers filed an amicus brief and Leonard Sosnov, a professor at Widener Law in Delaware, successfully argued the case.

Justices Eakin and Stevens dissented and would have found the unconstitutional portion of the statutes severable.  It should be noted that this case was only decided by a plurality of Justices, as the Court remains undermanned until successors to former Justices McCaffery and Castille can be elected in the fall.  As such, it is not binding, but remains highly influential for the lower courts to consider.

The practical effect is that this decision should make it clear that all of Pennsylvania’s drug-related mandatory minimum sentences, which share the same structure, are unconstitutional and should not be imposed.

To learn how this decision may affect your case, contact a Fairlie & Lippy attorney for a free consultation.

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