Critical Mandatory Minimum Update
Mandatory minimum sentencing laws in Pennsylvania may be about to change dramatically for the worse. For the past few years, the mandatory minimum sentences required by state law have been the subject of intense litigation, and most of them have been eliminated by opinions of the Pennsylvania Supreme and Superior Courts. Recently, the House passed a bill that would reinstate the previously stricken mandatory minimums by a vote of 146-46. The Philadelphia Inquirer reports that the Senate may also take up the legislation this week or next, and then the bill would be sent to the Governor for his signature.
Litigation Surrounding Mandatory Minimums
The litigation related to mandatory minimum sentences stems from the United States Supreme Court decision in Alleyne v. United States. In Alleyne, the Supreme Court held that because mandatory minimum sentences increase the penalty for a crime, any fact that increases the mandatory minimum is an “element” of the crime that must be submitted to the jury. For example, if the use of a firearm during the commission of a crime would trigger a mandatory minimum, as it previously did in Pennsylvania, then the fact that a gun was in fact used must be found by the jury at the end of trial instead of by the trial judge at sentencing.
Alleyne’s holding wreaked havoc on Pennsylvania’s mandatory minimum sentencing scheme. Instead of requiring that a jury rule on whether the facts which would trigger a mandatory minimum be submitted to the jury, Pennsylvania law specifically required the trial judge to determine if a mandatory minimum applied during sentencing. Further, the law permitted the sentencing judge to impose the mandatory minimum based on its own fact finding using a preponderance of the evidence standard instead of the much higher beyond a reasonable doubt standard required during a trial. For a defendant charged with selling drugs while in possession of a firearm, which previously triggered a five-year mandatory minimum, the sentencing judge could actually find that the mandatory minimum applied even if a jury had acquitted the defendant of possessing the gun but convicted the defendant of selling drugs.
The Pennsylvania sentencing scheme which gave this authority to the sentencing judge was in direct conflict with the Supreme Court’s holding in Alleyne. Therefore, in Commonwealth v. Hopkins, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held that the Pennsylvania scheme was unconstitutional and struck down the vast majority of Pennsylvania mandatory minimum sentences.
Despite the rulings in Hopkins and Alleyne, a handful of significant Pennsylvania mandatory minimum sentences have survived. For example, mandatory minimums which are triggered based on the defendant’s prior record do not suffer from the same fatal flaw as the mandatory minimums surrounding the weight of drugs, the use of firearms, or other issues of that nature. Therefore, Pennsylvania’s three strikes law and DUI mandatory minimums continue to be enforced. In the case of the three strikes law, Pennsylvania imposes a mandatory minimum of 10-20 years of incarceration for certain second strikes and a sentence of 25 – 50 years for a third strike. The offenses which constitute strikes are listed in 42 Pa.C.S. § 9714 and include certain types of homicide, assault, robbery, burglary, and a number of sex offenses. Likewise, even a first offense DUI can trigger a 72-hour incarceration sentence when the defendant is not eligible for ARD. Because the sentencing judge must only be satisfied as to the fact that the defendant has a certain prior conviction, those mandatory minimum sentences have survived.
Although some mandatory minimums remain, most mandatory minimums were eliminated by Alleyne and Hopkins. For example, Pennsylvania previously had dozens of mandatory minimums for violent crimes committed with a firearm, based on the weight of drugs possessed with the intent to distribute, for selling drugs in a school zone, and for many sex offenses. This means that Pennsylvania had mandatory minimums not just for violent crimes, but also non-violent crimes like drug possession.
Problems with Mandatory Minimums
Mandatory minimums raise a number of serious problems. While most Americans probably believe that defendants properly convicted of serious violent felonies and sex crimes should receive prison time, mandatory minimums apply to all sorts of non-violent conduct such as the possession of narcotics. Further, mandatory minimums take a one-size-fits-all approach to sentencing which deprives the judge of the power to determine whether any given defendant is deserving of a break due to something in the defendant’s background. For example, even if the judge learns at sentencing that the defendant in a drug case is dying of cancer, the judge would be unable to impose anything less than the mandatory minimum of incarceration in a state prison.
Finally (and perhaps most importantly), mandatory minimums force innocent people to plead guilty in order to avoid the risk of facing the mandatory minimum. When a defendant is charged with a crime that would trigger 25-50 years in prison should the defendant lose at trial, the defendant is much more likely to take a deal if the prosecutor offers probation. This is true regardless of whether or not the defendant actually committed the crime. Thus, many people who are actually innocent plead guilty in order to avoid the mandatory minimum instead of taking the case to trial. This is a huge contributing factor to the fact that the overwhelming majority of criminal cases end in some form of plea deal. Mandatory minimums have likewise led to a huge increase in the prison population in Pennsylvania and the rest of the country.
What to Do
If you are a Pennsylvania citizen, it is not too late to contact your State Senator and Governor Wolf and ask them to oppose the enactment of mandatory minimum sentences. Defendants should not have to plead guilty to crimes that they did not commit because they cannot risk the imposition of a mandatory minimum sentence. Additionally, each defendant is different, and many defendants charged with mandatory minimum crimes simply are not deserving of incarceration. Mandatory minimums take the authority to figure out who may be rehabilitated with probation or house arrest away from a neutral judge and give that power to the prosecutor who may be more interested in obtaining convictions and lengthy sentences for political reasons.
Contact a Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyer Today
If you are currently charged with or could be charged with a crime, then you should contact an experienced criminal defense attorney immediately. When you are deciding how to attack the case, one of the first things you need to know is whether a mandatory minimum could apply to some of the charges you are facing. The Philadelphia Criminal Defense Lawyers of Goldstein Mehta LLC have extensive experience fighting all types of state and federal charges in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and we will be able to evaluate your case, determine if a mandatory minimum applies, and provide you with the best options and advice on how to proceed. Call 267-225-2545 now for a free consultation.