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.
A Connecticut attorney recently received a citation for drug possession after marijuana fell from his pocket while he was in court. According to a paralegal at the firm where the attorney worked, a parent had confiscated marijuana from her child, and the parent provided the marijuana to the attorney along with a request that the attorney talk to the juvenile. The story proceeds that the attorney put the weed in his pocket and forgot about it until the marijuana fell from his pocket in court. The story sounds a little farfetched, and it does become harder for me to believe after one discovers that the quantity of marijuana involved was alleged to have been approximately two ounces.
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.
I do believe that honesty is the best policy, but there are often situations in the criminal process in which it is better for a person to remain silent, or forgo answering questions, instead of being honest. A man was recently stopped in Florida after he allegedly cut off an unmarked police car. The man and his vehicle were searched, and the police found 22 grams of heroin, 5.3 grams of cocaine, and $2,316 in cash. The man was arrested, charged with drug possession, and bail was set at $242,000.00. The online article did not specifically state the charges that were filed, but I am sure that they would have been felony offenses of possession with intent to distribute. Aside from the relatively large quantities of drugs, how did the police know, or at least have reason to suspect, that the man intended to sell the drugs? He listed his occupation on the arrest report as "drug dealer." An admission is pretty damning.
The police often investigate and solve offenses like robbery, assault, and burglary by using scientific evidence such as DNA and fingerprint analysis, video surveillance, and even monitoring of social media sites. In other situations, cases are solved through good old fashioned detective work. In a recent Pittsburgh area robbery attempt, a man handed a Pizza shop employee the typical demand document that said "I have a gun, Give me $300.00." The note was written on a piece of toilet paper. The would-be robber did throw a curve ball into the typical robbery situation by claiming that he was being forced to commit the theft by another unknown man who had threatened the robber with the gun. Basically, the robber was claiming that he was being forced to commit the criminal act because he was being threatened by an unknown man with a gun.
Many people are not aware that the government can seek forfeiture of people's property if the property is somehow believed to be involved in criminal activity. I believe that most people would not have a problem with the government seizing the proceeds of illegal activity or property and things that were purchased with such proceeds. For example, if a person were a large scale drug dealer, the dealer may have money in the bank, cash in a safe in the house, cars, motorcycles, and even a vacation home. In such cases, I suspect that no one would have a problem with the government seizing such items as a criminal should not be able to benefit from the illegal activity.
Pennsylvania State troopers from the Rockview Barracks in Centre County recently stopped a rented van from Michigan after the driver failed to use a turn signal when switching lanes. During the traffic stop, the police asked the driver if the police could search the van, and the driver consented. The troopers removed two Christmas gifts and a piece of luggage from the van. A drug-sniffing dog was brought to the scene and alerted to the Christmas packages, meaning it was suspected that the packages contained drugs. The packages were then opened, and the troopers found approximately 20 pounds of marijuana. The man was arrested, taken before a Centre County judge for a Preliminary Arraignment on charges of Possession With Intent to Deliver Marijuana in violation of 35 P.S. 780-113(a)(30).
First, I need to emphasize that people should not possess anything that is illegal, be it drugs, a fake ID, stolen property, or any other form of contraband. However, if you are going to possess such things, leave them at home when you are heading to court. Most Pennsylvania court facilities require a person to pass through a security checkpoint, and some of those checkpoints use X-ray machines. Simply stated, taking drugs or contraband with you to court is not a good idea.
In what is a somewhat routine fact pattern in Centre County, a traveler on interstate 80 was stopped for a relatively minor traffic violation but a search of the person's vehicle ultimately led to the discovery of drugs. In this particular case, the Pennsylvania State troopers stopped a man for speeding and decided to only issue a warning. In what has become routine in these cases, the troopers had the man exit his vehicle and walk to the back of the car so the officer could explain the warning. After issuing the warning and telling the man that he was free to leave, the police immediately started to question the man about his travel plans, and the trooper questioned the man as to whether or not he had previously been arrested or was currently trafficking drugs. The man denied that he had a prior criminal record and also denied that he was transporting controlled substances. The trooper then asked for consent to search the car, and the man responded "if you want to." The troopers searched the car and found approximately 12 pounds of marijuana. The man was arrested and charged with a felony charge of Possession With Intent to Deliver Marijuana, 35 P.S. § 780-113(a)(30), Possession of Drug Paraphernalia, 35 P.S. § 780-113(a)(32), and misdemeanor Possession of Marijuana, 35 P.S. § 780-113(a)(16).