Pennsylvania Supreme Court Holds Drug-Free School Zone Unconstitutional

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.

School Includes Colleges and Universities

The mandatory sentence imposes a two-year mandatory minimum sentence if a person is convicted of a felony drug offense, such as delivery or possession with intent to deliver, and the violation occurred within 1,000 feet of the real property of a school or 250 feet of a recreational facility. The intent behind the law was that the drug trade is sometimes associated with guns and violence, and the goal was to punish people more severely that brought this additional danger around schools. As a parent of three children, I can understand and probably would support the rationale behind the law. However, what many people do not understand is that the definition of “school” is very broad and  includes colleges and universities. In Centre County, the vast majority of drug delivery cases are not conducted near elementary or high schools but instead involve college kids at Penn State dealing drugs to one another.

The Centre County District Attorney’s Office has been using the school zone mandatory sentencing law for years to severely punish young men and women, saddling them with felony convictions and often sending them to jail. A person that physically attacks another person is only charged with Simple Assault, a misdemeanor charge, and that person often does not spend any time in jail. However, a frat brother that gives a small amount of weed to another brother or a high school friend is charged with a felony and threatened with a 2-year state prison sentence if he wants a trial in the case or even requests exculpatory materials that are required by law to be given to the defense.

Ironically, the current Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller’s initial campaign for the office included a platform in which she attacked the former district attorney for using the drug-free school zone law. Parks Miller stated that she would not use the law to over-punish the Penn State students. Regrettably, Parks Miller did not hold to her campaign promise and continued with the practice of former county prosecutors, the precise practice that she had attacked just weeks earlier.

Sentencing Enhancement for Drugs and Schools

With the law being struck down by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Pennsylvania prosecutors can no longer use the drug-free school zone mandatory sentencing statute to crowd our prisons with non-violent offenders. Regrettably, one of the Supreme Court justices wrote a dissenting opinion that called for the legislature to re-write and pass a new version of the law. Some defense lawyers have questioned the ethics of the justice as he used his opinion as a forum to encourage the legislature to pass a new law to create a new mandatory minimum sentencing scheme. Not so surprisingly, the justice  is a former prosecutor that routinely sides with the prosecution in his opinions. The good news is that this justice was recently defeated in the primary election and should not be returning to the state’s highest appellate court.

For people that think we need this law to protect our children, I can tell you that there is already in place a sentencing enhancement that allows a judge to impose a more severe sentence if a drug delivery occurs near an elementary, middle, or high school. The sentencing enhancement is not clear on its definition of “school,” but Centre County judges have held that the sentencing enhancement does NOT apply to colleges and universities. Because Pennsylvania judges already have the ability to impose more severe sentences in drug cases that could impact the safety of children, we do not need a mandatory sentencing law. Our legislators can spend time cutting the budget instead of passing laws that will overpopulate our prisons and cause taxpayers to spend more money on prisons.