Blair County Rules School Zone Sentencing Law Unconstitutional

Following the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Alleyne v. U.S., defense attorneys across the state of Pennsylvania have brought challenges to the constitutionality of various mandatory minimum sentencing laws related to felony drug convictions for delivery and possession with intent to deliver controlled substances. A constitutional challenge to mandatory minimum sentences for drug-free school zone, drug trafficking, and certain drug offenses committed with firearms was recently brought by an Altoona criminal defense attorney in Blair County. The Hollidaysburg judges sat as an en banc panel, meaning that all of the judges considered the issue, and held that the mandatory minimum sentencing laws were unconstitutional.

Majority of Counties Rule Pennsylvania Mandatory Drug Sentencing Laws are Unconstitutional

The Blair County ruling is in accordance with the holding of the majority of county judges across Pennsylvania that have considered the issue. In Montgomery, Philadelphia, Lycoming, and Chester counties, judges have held that the drug-free school zone and drug trafficking sentencing laws are unconstitutional and thereby cannot be used by Pennsylvania prosecutors to send non-violent drug offenders to state prison to serve lengthy sentences. Congratulations to Philadelphia criminal defense attorney R. Patrick Link in presenting a convincing argument to a Philadelphia judge. Two counties, Centre and Lancaster, have judges that have bucked the majority and held that that the drug mandatory sentencing laws are constitutional, so the prosecutors in those counties continue to threaten drug defendants with application of those mandatories if the person proceeds to a trial or otherwise challenges the evidence in a case.

As a State College drug possession defense attorney, this issue is very important to my practice. The Centre County District Attorney’s Office routinely threatens to use the drug-free school zone mandatory sentence against Penn State students that are alleged to have sold or possessed with intent to deliver drugs, including very small amounts of marijuana. A person can possess heroin for personal use, and the person would be charged with a misdemeanor drug possession offense. Or a person could physically assault another individual and only be charged with a misdemeanor offense of Simple Assault. Such people may be permitted to participate in a first-time offender program called ARD that would allow the person to have the charges dismissed and then expunged. If the person were not ARD eligible, they are unlikely to spend much time in jail if any at all. To contrast those cases, if a Penn State student gave his friend a small amount of marijuana, the student would be charged with a felony offense of delivery. In Centre County, I have never had a client charged with a felony drug offense receive ARD. If the delivery occurred within 1,000 feet of Penn State property, the student faces a two-year mandatory minimum sentence in state prison. So the criminal defendant that physically assaulted and injured another person gets a probationary sentence, meaning no jail time, while an 18-year old that gave a gram of weed to his roommate goes to state prison for 2 years.

I must emphasize that I am not claiming that drug dealing should not be punished, but I believe that a judge should be permitted to consider the facts and circumstances of a case and impose an appropriate sentence. Forcing a judge to send a young and naive college kid from Penn State or Lock Haven University to a state correctional facility is wrong.