As a criminal defense lawyer, I am before judges quite frequently for sentencing hearings. Because my law firm is located in State College, I represent a lot of Penn State students that get into trouble, often as a result of having a bit too much to drink. Most of my clients are good people at heart who made a bad decision and a few mistakes. They appear before a judge for sentencing, and it is up to the judge to determine a "fair and just" punishment. A sentence is supposed to act as a deterrent, so it must have some element of punishment. The severity of the punishment is up to the judge. The judge has the ability to take a person's very freedom by imposing a jail sentence. Striking the balance and finding the appropriate punishment is not easy, and I do not envy the judge's role in the system.
In a very important decision for lawyers across the state of Pennsylvania, but especially important for defense lawyers in State College that handle drug distribution and possession with intent to deliver cases, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court is holding that the drug-free school zone law is unconstitutional and cannot be used by prosecutors or imposed by judges. The decision in Commonwealth v. Hopkins affirmed a decision of the Pennsylvania Superior Court that had previously held that the law violated constitutional requirements. Most county courts that addressed the issue reached the conclusion that the law was unconstitutional, but the Honorable Judge Bradley Lunsford in Centre County issued one of the few holdings that permitted prosecutors to use mandatory minimum sentences. After Lunsford issued his ruling, the remaining Centre County judges adopted his opinion and thereby continued to impose mandatory minimum sentences in drug cases. The good news is that the Supreme Court has ruled in favor of the constitution and struck down the awful law. The holding in this decision is likely to be applied to other drug-related mandatory minimum sentences like the drug trafficking law.
Many of the drug-related mandatory minimum sentences are being challenged across the state and across the country following the Alleyne decision that was issued by the U.S. Supreme Court. The Pennsylvania Superior Court had issued opinions that drug-related mandatory sentencing laws were unconstitutional, but because the court did not expressly rule on the drug-free school zone mandatory, Centre County prosecutors continued to seek imposition of the mandatory sentences. As Pennsylvania criminal defense attorneys had expected, the Superior Court put the constitutionality of the school zone issue to rest in Commonwealth v. Bizzel and held that the law could not be used by Pennsylvania prosecutors. The issue is currently being considered by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, and I am hopeful that the highest Pennsylvania court will affirm the decision of the Superior Court and thereby finally put the nail on the coffin for mandatory minimum sentencing laws for drug offenders.