Supreme Court ruling snarls sentencing minimums

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PITTSBURGH – A U.S. Supreme Court decision last year prompted dozens of appeals in criminal cases across Pennsylvania and left judges scratching their heads on how to apply state laws on mandatory minimum sentences.


The confusion has prompted meetings among judges, forced some judges to try out new jury instructions and even led some jurists to conclude that whole sections of state law are unconstitutional.


Legal experts say what happens next will be driven largely by cases already on appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.


“No appellate court in Pennsylvania has gotten around to definitively deciding the question, and everybody, it seems, is waiting for someone else to decide it,” said St. Vincent College law professor Bruce Antkowiak, a former federal prosecutor and defense attorney.


The stumbling block is Alleyne v. United States, a high court decision stemming from a Virginia federal court case that found that juries, not judges, should decide whether a defendant committed crimes that trigger a mandatory minimum sentence.


But 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.


Judges in at least one jurisdiction, Blair County in central Pennsylvania, recently decided to stop imposing mandatory minimum sentences altogether until the General Assembly rewrites the statutes.


The judges made the decision after hearing arguments from prosecutors and a defense attorney for two men facing five-year mandatory minimums – one accused of dealing drugs in a school zone; the other charged with having a weapon while in possession of marijuana.


“It’s a sad day for victims. It is a sad day for law enforcement. It is a sad day for society,” District Attorney Richard Consiglio told the Altoona Mirror at the time.


Consiglio declined to comment further while he considers whether to appeal the county judges’ ruling.


Since the Alleyne ruling, some Pennsylvania judges have begun asking juries to determine whether certain mandatory minimum triggers have been proved, even though state law doesn’t allow that. Other judges have ruled that Alleyne makes Pennsylvania criminal statutes containing mandatory minimum sentencing provisions unconstitutional in their entirety.


In eastern Pennsylvania, Lycoming County District Attorney Eric Linhardt said judges there first allowed juries to decide mandatory minimum sentences before reversing course and ruling the statutes illegal.


“Ten cases are presently on appeal, and many others will soon follow,” Linhardt said, adding the impasse could affect 100 pending drug cases in his office.


Thomas Dickey, the defense attorney in the Blair County case, believes statutes with mandatory sentencing provisions are unconstitutional, likening them to, of all things, a deep fryer with a removable cord.


“If you lose that cord, you really can’t use the deep fryer,” Dickey said. “I guess you could put the deep fryer on top of a fire and get the grease hot enough to make french fries that way, but it’s not what the instruction book calls for.”


If the state’s highest court agrees, the General Assembly could amend the statutes to let juries impose mandatory minimums or eliminate such sentences altogether. Antkowiak said that might intimidate some lawmakers who fear being labeled soft on crime.


But Allegheny County President Judge Manning said it wouldn’t bother him or most other judges who generally feel that mandatory minimums take away the court’s discretion.


“It’s not the Legislature’s job to set sentences,” Manning said. “It’s the court’s job, the judiciary.”


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