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Mandatory Minimum Sentences and Drug Offenses With Firearms- Still Legal In Pennsylvania?

The Alleyne decision renders those Pennsylvania mandatory minimum sentencing statutes that do not pertain to prior convictions constitutionally infirm.


The Pennsylvania Superior Court recently reviewed the decision in Alleyne v. United States, __ U.S. __, 133 S.Ct. 2151, 186 L. Ed. 2d 314 (2013). In Commonwealth v. Newman, 2014 Pa. Super. LEXIS 2871, 1,2014 PA Super 178, 2014 WL 4088805 (Pa. Super. Ct.2014), the Superior Court determined that the enhancement of the mandatory minimum insofar as they permit a judge to automatically increase a defendant's sentence based on a preponderance of the evidence standard is unconstitutional. In so doing, the Superior Court held that 42 Pa.C.S.A. Section 9712.1 (sentences for offenses committed with firearms) was unconstitutional.

The Facts in Newman

In Newman, the police executed a search warrant at the defendant's residence. There they discovered a large quantity of crack cocaine, drug paraphernalia in the form of plastic baggies and digital scales, and a handgun and bullets under a mattress in a bedroom. The bedroom was located across a hallway from a bathroom where over 60 grams of cocaine were found in the toilet. The distance between the gun and the cocaine was approximately six to eight feet. The defendant was convicted and the Commonwealth sought imposition of a mandatory sentence based upon the possession of the gun.

The Superior Court Holding

42 Pa.C.S.A. Section 9712.1 relating to offenses committed with firearms is unconstitutional. The Court stated:

"Under the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment and the notice and jury trial guarantees of the Sixth Amendment, any fact (other than prior conviction) that increases the maximum penalty for a crime must be charged in an indictment, submitted to a jury, and proven beyond a reasonable doubt. The Fourteenth Amendment commands the same answer."

The Take Away

A sentencing enhancement (other than a prior crime) that increases the maximum allowable sentence or mandates a minimum sentence, is an element of the offense and must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Here, the statute in question was in direct contravention of this requirement and therefore, violates the constitution. This is different than a "sentencing factor," which is a mitigating or aggravating circumstance which permits a judge to sentence within a permissible range.