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Pennsylvania Supreme Court Interprets Drug Crime Sentencing Law

A Pennsylvania law that provides mandatory minimum sentences for controlled substance crimes was the subject of a recent Supreme Court of Pennsylvania opinion. The court considered the effect of multiple related convictions on a defendant's sentence, and its interpretation of the Pennsylvania criminal code protects criminal defendants from excessive punishment if they are convicted of drug crimes.

The case, Commonwealth v. Johnson, involved a Philadelphia man who was convicted in 2005 for possession of heroin as well as possession with intent to deliver a controlled substance. Due to the nearby presence of two other associated drug dealers during the sting operation on a Philadelphia street, Omar Johnson was also charged with and convicted of conspiracy to deliver a controlled substance.

Due to the conspiracy conviction, the trial court aggregated the total amount of heroin seized by law enforcement over three separate days of staged buys with Johnson, as well as drugs in the nearby car of one of the other men. Based on its reading of the state's Controlled Substance, Drug, Device and Cosmetic Act, the court determined that Johnson's crimes met the first threshold of 1.0 to 5.0 grams, which is eligible for a mandatory minimum sentence of two years.

In addition, Pennsylvania's mandatory drug crime sentencing law provides that if the defendant has been convicted of another drug trafficking offense, the court must impose a mandatory minimum term of three years in prison and a $10,000 fine "or such larger amount as is sufficient to exhaust the assets utilized in and the proceeds from the illegal activity." The punishment Johnson received for the crime increased significantly based on several complex factors involving the amount of drugs seized.

Mandatory Sentencing Enhancements Can Significantly Increase Incarceration

On appeal, Johnson raised various issues involving the evidence of a criminal conspiracy, the Commonwealth's methods of calculating the amount of heroin, and the trial court's conclusions about his constructive possession of drugs found in the vehicle. A divided Superior Court panel affirmed the convictions and rejected all of Johnson's claims.

On further appeal, the Supreme Court disagreed and vacated Johnson's sentence based on several reasons that will have implications for other defendants and the legal arguments made by their Pennsylvania criminal defense lawyers. The four basic holdings issued in the Supreme Court's opinion in response to Johnson's appeal ensure a tighter rein on prosecutors' use of the state's mandatory minimum sentencing law:

  • The criminal conspiracy conviction did not qualify as "another drug trafficking offense" for purposes of the statute imposing mandatory minimum sentences
  • The evidence presented by the prosecution at trial did not establish "a continuing criminal conspiracy between defendant and drug supplier"
  • The evidence failed to establish Johnson's constructive possession of the drugs from the vehicle
  • The weight of the heroin seized from the drug supplier's vehicle could not be considered in imposing defendant's mandatory minimum sentence

The majority was particularly persuaded by its close review of the Controlled Substance, Drug, Device and Cosmetic Act, which specifically applies to crimes involving possession, dispensing, administration and manufacture of controlled substances, but does not reference associated conspiracy crimes. Johnson's case was remanded to the trial court for new sentencing proceedings and the certainty of lighter punishment.

Persistent Criminal Defense Through Trial and on Appeal

Any case involving charges of a criminal conspiracy, including white collar crimes, drug offenses, child pornography crimes and other state and federal criminal offenses, requires diligent and aggressive criminal defense. The greatest danger to a defendant facing conspiracy charges is the chance of being held criminally responsible, at least in part, for another person's actions.

A smart legal defense strategy includes engaging with prosecutors as early as possible to assess the state's evidence and assert a client's rights. When a client faces punishment far in excess of what is justified by the facts, diligent appellate work may be necessary to pursue a just outcome and protect a client's future.