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Mandatory Minimum Sentences for Drug Offenses No Longer Legal in PA

Pennsylvania Courts continue to follow in line with U.S. Supreme Court decision in Alleyne.


I had recently blogged in August 2014, that the United State Supreme Court had ruled that juries, not judges need to decide the facts that enhance a minimum sentence. The United States Supreme Court in Alleyne held that "facts that increase mandatory minimum sentences must be submitted to the jury" and must be found beyond a reasonable doubt. (See link to blog article). In the same way that the Superior Court addressed the mandatory minimum sentences imposed for drug offenses when a firearm is possessed (See Newman), they likewise determined in Commonwealth v. Fennell, 2014 Pa. Super. 261, 2014 Pa. Super. LEXIS 4529 (November 21, 2014), that any sentence for which the mandatory minimum sentence may be determined by a preponderance of the evidence is illegal.

In August 2013, the Defendant was convicted after a bench trial of possession with the intent to deliver heroin. He stipulated to the weight of the heroin. After finding him guilty, the court imposed the mandatory minimum sentence of three (3) years incarceration. He filed a timely appeal to the Superior Court on the basis that the statute was unconstitutional because the sentencing provisions allowed the court to impose a mandatory minimum based upon a determination by a preponderance of the evidence, not proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

The Superior Court determined that it was irrelevant to the consideration of the case that the Defendant stipulated to the weight of the substance. Rather, the unconstitutional provisions of the Drug Act were "essentially and inseparably connected" and the statute was, therefore, unconstitutional. Rather, it was up to the legislature to establish a constitutional framework consistent with Alleyne. A stipulation by a defendant or a factual determination by jury "beyond a reasonable doubt" was not within the current statute.

This case also applies to "drug-free school zone" mandatories, the Superior Court has ruled. Commonwealth v. Bizzel, 2014 Pa. Super. 267 (Dec. 2, 2014).