Supreme Court ruling snarls sentencing minimums
PITTSBURGH (AP) – A U.S. Supreme Court decision last year has 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.