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'Just(ices) Say No' to Mandatory Drug Sentence

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In Commonwealth v. Hopkins, 98 MAP 2013 (Decided June 15, 2015), the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania has affirmed lower court decisions holding that the Drug-Free School Zones law is unconstitutional.  

Under this law, a person convicted of Drug Delivery or Possession with Intent to Deliver (PWID) within a specified distance of school property is subject to a mandatory minimum sentence of two (2) years in prison.

Drug-Free School Zones

Pursuant to Section 6317(a) of the PA Crimes Code, a person 18 years of age or older convicted of Drug Delivery or PWID must be sentenced to a mandatory minimum sentence of 2 years in prison if the delivery or possession with intent to deliver occurred within 1,000 feet of school property or 250 feet of a recreation center, playground, or school bus.

However, Sub-Section(b) of this statute outlines the requisite proof for imposition of this mandatory minimum sentence in two-parts:  1) the trial court shall determine applicability; and, 2) by a preponderance of the evidence.  This two-prong requirement was the central issue of contention in Hopkins.

Commonwealth v. Hopkins

The crux of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's opinion, in Hopkins, relied upon Alleyne v. United States, 133 S.Ct. 2151 (2013).  

In Alleyne, "the United States Supreme Court held that, under the Sixth Amendment of the United States Constituion, a jury must find beyond a reasonable doubt any facts that increase a mandatory minimum sentence."  quoting Hopkins.  As noted above, contrary to Alleyne, Section 6317(b) of the Drug-Free School Zones law only requires the finding be made by a judge (not a jury) by a preponderance of evidence (a lower burden than proof beyond a reaonable doubt).  Accordingly, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court found this section (and others) unconstitutional and not severable. 

The Hopkins Effect

Ultimately, as a result of the Hopkins decision, this means the imposition of a 2 year mandatory minimum prison sentence for drug delivery crimes occurring in Drug-Free School Zones are no longer applicable.  However, it does not mean persons charged with Drug Delivery or Possession With Intent to Deliver Drugs no longer face prison time.

First, depending on the controlled substance, many drug trafficking charges can still carry stiff jail sentences even without a mandatory sentence.

Second, as noted in a previous article, "Mandatory Drug Sentences and Enhancements in PA", the Youth/School Enhancement is constitutional and can be imposed by a court where applicable.  If the circumstances surrounding a drug sale implicate the Youth/School Enhancement, it could increase the sentencing guidelines and trigger a state prison sentence that may not have otherwise existed.

Third, the dissenting opinion, in Hopkins, "urge[d] our General Assembly to do whatever it takes to reaffirm through appropriate legislation its foregoing intent, i.e. the disapproval of the illegal drug trade that has for decades ravished all too many communities and families throughout the Commonwealth."  Essentially, the dissent has encouraged a legislative fix to the Drug-Free Schools Zones law in order to restore its application.

Finally, time will tell the story of the effect Hopkins has on drug sentencing.  The practical reality is that each case, like each person accused, comes with its own individual set of facts and circumstances.  

Not all persons accused of Drug Delivery or PWID are actively engaged in the "drug trade" as a source of "employment."  Some people may be trying to feed a personal addiction; or help a friend get their 'fix'; or a group of resourceful friends buying a large quantity weed "whole sale" to split among themselves at a lower costs.  While none of these circumstances may present per se legal defenses to drug delivery or PWID, they certainly were not the intended target of mandatory drug sentencing.

When you have been accused of a drug crime, there is one way to control the effect these charges may have on sentencing:  get an experienced and knowledgeable Drug Defense Lawyer in your corner.

Contact Shawn Curry Law today:  717-525-8733.

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