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    Reducing a Mandatory Minimum Prison Sentence in a Pennsylvania Drug Case

    Pennsylvania Supreme Court Upholds Sentencing Entrapment in a Drug-Free School Zone Case

    In Commonwealth v. Morales (2013), the Pennsylvania Supreme Court considered a trial court’s finding of sentencing entrapment and constitutionality of Pennsylvania’s drug-free school zone law. The PA Supreme Court returned the case back to the trial court with instructions to decide the case on the sentencing entrapment defense and not on the issue of whether the drug-free school zone law was constitutional.

    Background of the Case

    Morales was convicted of selling a quarter of a pound of marijuana to a confidential informant for the Franklin County Drug Task Force. He was convicted of possession with intent to deliver. Under Pennsylvania’s Controlled Substance, Drug, Device and Cosmetic Act and the sentencing guidelines, his sentence would have been 61 days of imprisonment with probation and court costs.

    However, prior to sentencing the prosecutor’s office provided written notice that it intended to seek an enhanced sentence under Pennsylvania’s drug-free school zone law, since the deal occurred within 1,000 feet of a nursery school. Under the drug-free school zone law, Morales faced a mandatory minimum of 2 years in prison. He argued the sentencing entrapment defense, and the court agreed. In addition, the court questioned the constitutionality of the drug-free school zone law. Read more about Pennsylvania’s drug-free school zone law.

    The Trial Court’s Sentencing Order

    The trial court’s entire sentencing order reads:

    October 5, 2011, the Court having began sentencing on this, and it appearing there is an issue on entrapment and who suggested the location, the Court is going to impose the sentence without the mandatory school zone penalty today, but the Court will allow the Commonwealth, if they choose to appeal, to have a brief hearing at which time the Court will hear the confidential informant and the Defendant as to who suggested the location of it.

    The Court today having looked at the Pre-Sentence Report. He did well on the Pre Trial Program. He has one summary offense. He had admitted that he delivered the marijuana. And the Judge really has troucle[sic] sending an individual like that to two to four years in a State Correctional Institution. It doesn’t feel the interest of justice being served. The Court also feels that this is a very poorly drafted piece of legislature by the Pennsylvania Senate and House. Of course they are reacting to public opinion and didn’t think the things through and put certain requirements in to meet them. And I think it is Constitutional vague.

    Ultimately, the trial court held that Section 6317 (the drug-free school zone law) was unconstitutional, which triggered the appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Under Pennsylvania appeals law, the state’s Supreme Court hears a direct appeal in a case where a Court of Common Pleas declares a statute unconstitutional. Usually, cases are appealed to the Superior Court (intermediate appellate court) first.

    The Morales court recognized the sentencing entrapment defense; however, the court found that the trial court should not have decided the constitutionality of Section 6317 because the issue wasn’t raised by either of the parties. Basically, the trial court brought the issue up on its own, or sua sponte. This was a problem because judges are not supposed to raise issues and decide them; doing so turns a judge into an advocate for either side which is of course, improper.

    Ultimately, in the Morales case, the defendant was able to argue the sentencing entrapment defense, which kept him out of prison for 2 years. What’s interesting about this case is that the trial court found that the drug-free school zone law was unconstitutional, and the court’s instinct may be right. Due to a major U.S. Supreme Court case, Pennsylvania’s mandatory minimum sentencing laws, in their current forms, are probably unconstitutional.

    Related: Drug-Gun Cases in Philadelphia, Sentencing Laws Have Changed Significantly

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