PA Superior Court: A decade in jail is too much time for selling a pill and a half to another inmate

Philadelphia Criminal Lawyer Zak Goldstein

Philadelphia Criminal Lawyer Zak Goldstein

The Pennsylvania Superior Court has decided the case of Commonwealth v. Sarvey, holding that it is unreasonable to sentence a defendant to over ten years’ incarceration for attempting to distribute one and one-half pills of a controlled substance to another inmate while in prison. The Superior Court is often reluctant to overrule even the harshest of excessive sentences, so this is a great opinion for the defense which shows that there are some limits to a judge’s discretion in sentencing a defendant.

Commonwealth v. Sarvey

On July 26, 2011, the defendant was incarcerated at Jefferson County Correctional Facility when she attempted to give one-half of a tablet of Oxycodone and a tablet of Ambien to another inmate. The prison recorded the attempted sale on video. The defendant hid the pills under a commissary form and slid them under cell door toward another inmate’s cell.

A corrections officer noticed the papers being pushed underneath the defendant’s cell door and attempted to pick them up. The defendant refused to release the papers. After a struggle, the officer was able to take the papers away from her. The officer handed the form back to the defendant, and as the officer walked away she noticed a baggie containing two pills in the place where the paper had been. The officer confiscated the baggie.

The defendant was subsequently charged with two counts of possession with intent to deliver a controlled substance (hereinafter “PWID”), two counts of possession of a controlled substance by an inmate (hereinafter “possession by an inmate”), two counts of controlled substance contraband to confined persons prohibited (hereinafter “controlled substance to prison”) and two counts of criminal attempt. Some of these charges were added prior to trial when the Commonwealth filed a motion to amend the information on the eve of trial. On April 16, 2012, a jury found the defendant guilty of all charges.

At sentencing, the trial court sentenced the defendant to consecutive terms of incarceration on the PWID convictions (one to three years for one PWID count and one and one-half years to three years to three years for the second PWID count). The trial court further imposed consecutive terms of incarceration for each count of possession by an inmate (one and one-half years to three years on each count), and a term of incarceration of two to five years for each count of controlled substance to prison.

Unfortunately for the defendant, she was also on the trial judge’s probation for four other cases. The trial judge then revoked her probation on those cases and sentenced her to a term of confinement of one to two years plus five years of probation. In total, the defendant received a sentence of ten and one-half to twenty-four years of incarceration followed by five years of probation. The defendant then filed an appeal.

The Superior Court Appeal

The defendant filed a direct appeal to the Superior Court. In the direct appeal, the defendant only raised the issue that the trial court erred in granting the Commonwealth’s motion to amend the information to add charges on the eve of trial. However, the Superior Court found that the appeal was without merit. The defendant also petitioned the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to review her appeal, but the Court declined to do so.

With her appeals denied, the defendant then filed a Post-Conviction Relief Act (“PCRA”) petition alleging that her trial and appellate attorneys were ineffective in failing to challenge her sentence as excessive on appeal. At the PCRA hearing, her trial attorney testified that he did not object to her sentence nor did he file a post-sentence motion to reconsider the sentence. The trial court denied the PCRA Petition, and the defendant appealed the denial of the PCRA Petition to the Superior Court. She raised a number of issues in her appeal of the PCRA Petition, but she won relief only on the failure to appeal the excessive sentence.

Can you file a PCRA against an appellate attorney?

Yes. A defendant is entitled to competent representation at all stages of their criminal case and not just the trial. If the court finds that an appellate attorney provided the ineffective assistance of counsel when handling a defendant’s appeal, that defendant could be entitled to another appeal. For a more detailed summary of Pennsylvania’s Post-Conviction Relief Act, please see our other articles where we discuss PCRAs in more detail (  

Can I appeal my sentence in Pennsylvania?

Yes. In Pennsylvania, if a defendant is found guilty of a crime, they must be sentenced to a minimum and maximum sentence. Obviously, some crimes are more serious than others and carry the possibility for a longer sentence. For example, a felony of the first degree has a maximum of twenty years’ incarceration whereas a misdemeanor of the first degree has a maximum of five years’ incarceration. However, just because someone is found guilty of a crime does not mean that a judge has free rein to give them the longest sentence allowed by statute. Additionally, just because a defendant was found guilty of multiple convictions does not mean that a judge can give maximum consecutive sentences on each of the charges.

When fashioning a sentence, a judge is supposed to take several factors into consideration into consideration. First, the sentencing court must consider the sentencing guidelines for a particular defendant. The sentencing guidelines analyze the severity of the offense (also known as the offense gravity score) and the criminal history of the defendant (also known as the prior record score). Again, for a more detailed analysis of Pennsylvania sentencing guidelines, please refer to our Pennsylvania Sentencing Guidelines blog(

However, courts should consider additional factors when sentencing a defendant. For example, the sentencing court should consider factors such as the age of the defendant; the facts of the case; whether the crime involved violence; whether the defendant is a threat to the community; the rehabilitative needs of the defendant, etc. It should be noted that appellate courts are unlikely to overturn a defendant’s sentence. Judges are given an incredible amount of discretion when fashioning a sentence. In order to successfully appeal a sentence, the sentencing court must have been unduly harsh, as in Sarvey, in order for a defendant to successfully win an appeal on grounds that the sentencing court abused their discretion.

Sarvey’s sentence was excessive

In Sarvey, the Superior Court found that the defendant’s sentence was clearly unreasonable and that her attorney was ineffective for not objecting to it and filing a post-sentence motion. The Superior Court found that her attorney did not have a reasonable basis for his failure to file a post-sentence motion and appeal the discretionary aspect of her sentence. The Superior Court further opined that although the court had a history with the defendant and that distributing narcotics in prison is particularly dangerous, her sentence was “unquestionably harsh” as she had merely attempted to provide 1.5 pills to another inmate. Thus, a sentence with a minimum of more than ten years for such conduct was simply too harsh and an abuse of the trial court’s discretion. The Superior Court noted that although the charges do not technically merge for sentencing purposes, they are undeniably very similar and intended to punish the same type of conduct. Therefore, defense counsel was ineffective in failing to appeal the original sentence. Accordingly, Sarvey will receive a new sentencing hearing.

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Goldstein Mehta LLC Criminal Defense Attorneys

Goldstein Mehta LLC Criminal Defense Attorneys

If you are facing criminal charges or under investigation by the police, we can help. We have successfully defended thousands of clients against criminal charges in courts throughout Pennsylvania and New Jersey. We have successfully obtained full acquittals in cases involving charges such as Conspiracy, Aggravated Assault, and Attempted Murder. Our award-winning Philadelphia criminal defense lawyers offer a free criminal defense strategy session to any potential client. Call 267-225-2545 to speak with an experienced and understanding defense attorney today.