Court frowns on sentencing laws
HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania appellate court judges have added their voice to lower court decisions saying that certain state mandatory minimum sentencing laws are unconstitutional under a U.S. Supreme Court case decided last year.
Wednesday’s Superior Court ruling came three weeks before Pennsylvania Supreme Court justices are scheduled to hear arguments on more than 20 similar cases on Sept. 10 in Philadelphia.
Fueling the raft of cases is Alleyne v. United States, a 2013 high court decision that found that juries, not judges, should decide whether a defendant committed crimes that trigger a mandatory minimum sentence. However, Pennsylvania law says a jury decides a person’s guilt or innocence of the underlying crime, such as drug possession or robbery. A judge then uses a lower standard of proof to decide whether the mandatory sentencing “triggers” were proved — such as being in a school zone when drug dealing or brandishing a gun during the robbery.
The Superior Court panel’s unanimous decision came in the case of James Newman, who was convicted in Montgomery County in 2012 in a drug case. Prosecutors asked the judge to boost Newman’s minimum sentence to five years in prison because a gun was found in the apartment where he had been involved in controlled drug buys, and the judge agreed.
However, the Superior Court panel ruled that the Alleyne case has rendered that mandatory minimum sentencing law to be unconstitutional, and it ordered that Newman receive a new sentence without consideration of any mandatory minimum.
It is the first time the Superior Court overturned such a law under the year-old U.S. Supreme Court decision.
“This is a ruling that is going to have a far-reaching effect on a number of sentencing statutes and a great number of sentences in Pennsylvania,” said Bruce Antkowiak, a former federal prosecutor and a law professor at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe.
James Swetz, a Stroudsburg lawyer who is president of the Pennsylvania Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, said the Superior Court ruling means there are no mandatory minimum sentences in drug firearm cases.
Montgomery County Assistant District Attorney Robert Falin said his office is likely to appeal to the state Supreme Court. Montgomery County prosecutors had asked the judges to allow a sentencing jury to be impaneled to decide whether a mandatory minimum sentence should be imposed. But the judges declined, saying that would require them to take on decisions that should be left to lawmakers.
The number of sentences that could be affected if the state Supreme Court throws out the mandatory minimum sentence laws in question would be limited to those that were not finalized before the Alleyne decision on June 17, 2013, Falin and Swetz said.