A Centre County judge has recently issued a ruling in a State College drug delivery case that held that the "drug-free school zone" mandatory minimum sentence is constitutional. The school zone mandatory sentence can be invoked by prosecutors in Pennsylvania drug distribution, possession with intent to deliver, or manufacturing cases if the alleged criminal activity occurred within 1,000 feet of a school, which includes colleges and universities, or within 250 feet of a recreational facility. The school zone sentencing law requires a judge to impose a 2 year mandatory minimum sentence for every felony drug conviction that occurred within the required distances.
Is Pennsylvania School Zone Law Constitutional?
Many of the Pennsylvania mandatory minimum sentences related to felony drug convictions provide that a judge is to determine applicability of the mandatory at the time of sentencing by a preponderance of the evidence standard. A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision called Alleyne v. U.S. held that factors that increase a mandatory sentence must be presented to the trier of fact, which is normally a jury, and such facts must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. Clearly, the Pennsylvania sentencing laws as written are unconstitutional, but prosecutors across the state are arguing that the laws can be fixed by simply presenting the issue to a jury. Drug defense attorneys are arguing that the laws are unconstitutional as written and therefore cannot be used until the legislature amends them. Currently, Lycoming, Chester, and Montgomery Counties have all held that drug mandatory sentencing laws are unconstitutional. Centre County appears to be the first county in Pennsylvania to hold that the school zone law can still be used by county prosecutors.
Centre County DA Uses School Zone Mandatory Sentence
A few years ago, the Pennsylvania Sentencing Commission issued a report to the Pennsylvania legislature recommending that the drug-free school zone mandatory sentencing law be repealed. The Centre County DA campaigned a few years ago during the election and promised to avoid issuing cookie cutter sentences in drug cases and also stated that the school zone law was not intended to be used to punish Penn State students selling small amounts of marijuana to one another. Despite the recommendation from the Sentencing Commission, the school zone law remains on the books. Despite the DA's promises to reform the prosecution of felony drug cases in Centre County, the school zone is actively used by the prosecutor's office as negotiating leverage in plea negotiations.
Many of the "drug dealers" in State College are Penn State students that are selling marijuana to one another to recoup the money that they spend on their own marijuana. They are not making loads of money and driving around in fancy cars. When such individuals are charged in Centre County, the DA often issues a plea offer to resolve the case that requires the individual to plead guilty to a felony charge of delivery or possession with intent to deliver, and the person may even be required to spend time in jail. Instead of saddling these young adults with a felony record before they leave school, they should be permitted to participate in a first-time offender program like ARD, probation without verdict (PWOV), or a drug court program that would require them to complete counseling, pass drug tests, pay court costs and fees, and stay out of trouble under the supervision of the probation for a period of time. The punishment should fit the crime. Using the school zone mandatory sentence in small amount of marijuana delivery cases is like killing a fly with a sledge hammer.