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.
According to a recent Huffington Post article, 77% of Americans are in favor of putting an end to mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent offenders. Many of the non-violent offenders are in prison based upon severe sentences that are imposed on drug-related crimes. For example, in Pennsylvania, one of the most ridiculous mandatory minimum sentences, commonly called the "drug-free school zone", imposes a two-year minimum sentence on a person that is convicted of delivery, possessing with intent to deliver, or manufacturing a drug within 1,000 feet of the real property of a school or 250 feet within the real property of a recreational facility. Many people would support such a law as they want to keep drug dealers and that type of activity away from children, and as a parent, I would probably support such a law. However, the definition of "school" includes colleges and universities, so a Penn State or Lock Haven student that sells a small amount of marijuana to a friend or gives him an Adderall pill faces a two-year mandatory minimum sentence. If the school zone mandatory sentence did not apply, a person charged with distributing less than one pound of marijuana who did not have a prior criminal record would generally face a probationary sentence up to one month in jail. It does not make sense that a person that sells marijuana 1,001 feet from a school can avoid jail time but a person selling on campus gets a two-year sentence in a state correctional facility. While such students should be punished for illegal activity, the punishment should fit the crime.
I believe that it is undisputed that the current drug-related mandatory minimum sentences in Pennsylvania, like the "drug-free school zone" and "drug trafficking," are unconstitutional. The laws as written do not require a prosecutor to actually charge a person with the mandatory, and prosecutors are not required to prove applicability of the drug mandatory sentences to a jury with a beyond a reasonable doubt standard. The U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling which requires that such mandatory sentences be proven to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt. Clearly, the Pennsylvania drug sentencing laws as written violate what the U.S. Supreme Court has said is required.
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.
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.