Last month, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court put to rest a major constitutional issue in Philadelphia criminal drug cases—the issue of enhanced sentencing factors, such as the drug-free zone sentencing law and the gun possession sentencing law. See Commonwealth v. Hopkins (June 15, 2015).
However, this isn’t the first time a court in Pennsylvania has found the drug-free school zone sentencing law unconstitutional. Late last year in Commonwealth v. Bizzel, the PA Superior Court held that application of the drug-free school zone law in that case was unconstitutional. Read more about that case here.
ABOUT PA’S SENTENCE ENHANCING LAWS IN DRUG CASES
Under these sentence enhancing laws, individuals charged with drug possession/drug dealing crimes face lengthy mandatory minimum prison sentences, if certain triggering facts are proved, i.e., selling drugs within 1,000 feet of a school zone or possessing a firearm during a drug sale.
Under the current versions of these laws, the sentencing judge must be satisfied that the prosecution has proved these factors, and the standard of proof is quite low. These laws require the prosecution to prove these factors by a preponderance of the evidence, the lowest evidentiary standard under the law.
This scheme was turned on its head after the United States Supreme Court held that sentence enhancing facts must be submitted to the jury and proved beyond a reasonable doubt, the same standard applied to the elements of the crime (Alleyne v. U.S., 2013).
After the Alleyne case was handed down, prosecutors throughout PA tried to apply the sentence enhancing laws by simply adding the fact to jury verdict slips. Some judges allowed this practice which is now unconstitutional under the recent Hopkins case. The Hopkins court held that special verdict slips do not cure the constitutional defects of the sentence enhancing laws. In addition, the court held that the law could not be saved by applying the principle of severability. Under this principle, unconstitutional sections of laws can be severed from the constitutional ones, thus saving the law. Despite strong dissents arguing otherwise, the court struck the law down. Now, the Pennsylvania legislature must cure the defect by rewriting the laws.
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