Pennsylvania Judge Holds School Zone Mandatory Sentence for Drug Delivery Unconstitutional


Pennsylvania criminal defense lawyers that handle felony drug cases like delivery or possession with intent to deliver charge should pay close attention to a decision recently issued by a judge in eastern Pennsylvania that held the “drug-free school zone” mandatory minimum sentence unconstitutional. The drug-free school zone requires a judge to impose a sentence of incarceration of at least 2  years if a person delivered, possessed with intent to deliver, or manufactured drugs within 1,000 feet of a school or 250 feet of a recreation facility. The definition of school for the drug-free school zone includes colleges and universities, so the drug-free school zone statute is used by many prosecutors in college towns, such as State College, Altoona, and Lock Haven, and against college students that are dealing to one another.

U.S. Supreme Court Ruling Changes Burden of Proof in Mandatory Sentencing Cases

The Pennsylvania judge based his decision on a relatively recent opinion issued by the U.S. Supreme Court that requires any fact that increases the mandatory minimum sentence to be presented to a jury and proved beyond a reasonable doubt. The way the drug-free school zone and other drug-related mandatory sentences like drug trafficking have worked in the past was that the jury would determine guilt or innocence on the offense of drug distribution or possession with intent to distribute. If the jury found the person guilty, then it was up to the judge at sentencing to determine whether sufficient evidence was presented to impose a mandatory minimum sentence. A jury is required to find that the prosecution proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt at a trial, but a sentencing judge is only required to find that evidence was presented by a preponderance of evidence, and the preponderance standard is much lower. Simply stated, in the past, mandatory sentences were determined  by a judge under a preponderance of the evidence standard. The U.S. Supreme Court stated that such procedures were unconstitutional and requires that a jury determines whether or not the prosecution proved the elements for the mandatory sentence beyond a reasonable doubt.

Ruling Will Apply to Other Drug Mandatory Sentences

Many of the mandatory minimum sentencing laws in Pennsylvania expressly state that the issue is to be decided by a judge by a preponderance of the evidence standard. Prosecutors across the state are arguing that the mandatory sentences should not be deemed unconstitutional because the law can be “fixed” by ignoring the language that violates the constitution and just present the issue to the jury. Drug defense lawyers are arguing that the prosecutors and judges cannot simply ignore the parts of the law that clearly violate the constitution and still use the rest of the statute. Since the statute as written violates the constitution, the entire law should be deemed unconstitutional. The recent decision from the Pennsylvania trial court judge adopted the defense argument when he ruled that the entire drug-free school zone statute was unconstitutional. Many other mandatory minimum sentences in Pennsylvania contain the same unconstitutional language, so it is possible that many of the mandatory minimum sentences could also be held to be unconstitutional.

The opinion from the eastern Pennsylvania judge is only precedential in that particular county, so other judges may issue different rulings. The judges in Centre County are considering challenges to the drug-free school zone in State College drug delivery cases. We shall see whether the Bellefonte judges hold that the laws are unconstitutional or accept the district attorney’s arguments and only strike the unconstitutional portions of the law. Ultimately, the appellate courts, meaning the Superior and then Supreme Courts, in Pennsylvania will consider the issue and will issue a precedential opinion that will apply for the entire state.