Mandatory Minimum Sentencing for Distribution in a School Zone Ruling

In Commonwealth v. Hopkins, decided on June 15th, 2015, our Supreme Court found the imposition of a mandatory minimum sentence following a conviction for the distribution of a controlled substance in a school zone unconstitutional. The Court’s decision effectively struck down numerous other mandatory minimum sentencing laws in the Commonwealth, and leaves the question of whether these schemes will return up to the General Assembly.

The Court determined that portions of the drug-free school zone mandatory-minimum sentencing law could not be severed from sentencing provisions found unconstitutional in Alleyne v. United States, 133 S. Ct. 2151, 186 L. Ed. 2d314 (2013). Because those portions of the law could not be severed from the law as a whole, the Court struck down the mandatory-minimum sentencing scheme in its entirety.

Defendant Kyle Hopkins sold heroin to a confidential informant on three occasions – one of which was near a school. Anticipating that the state would seek the mandatory minimum sentence under Section 6317 of the Pennsylvania Criminal Code, Hopkins filed a motion for extraordinary relief with the trial court, contending that the sentencing provision was unconstitutional.

The trial court granted the motion, holding that Section 6317 puts facts determining the applicability of the mandatory minimum sentence in the hands of the judge based on a preponderance-of-the-evidence standard, a lower standard than beyond a reasonable doubt which applies to a defendant at his criminal trial, thus violating the ruling of Alleyne.

In Alleyne, the Court invalidated portions of mandatory sentencing laws by holding that facts that increase a mandatory minimum sentence are an element of the offense. The Court found that those factual issues must be submitted to a jury, as opposed to a judge, and must be proven to the jury beyond a reasonable doubt, instead of by a preponderance of the evidence. Alleyne dealt with mandatory minimum schemes bases on prior offenses.

Hopkins validates the reasoning behind several Commonwealth Superior Court decisions striking down other mandatory minimum sentencing schemes, including those for defendants convicted of robberies involving a firearm and crimes against victims younger than 16 years old.

Prosecutors in Hopkins argued these invalid protions of the drug-free school zone sentencing mandatory-minimum scheme could be severed from the law as a whole. However, the Court found that allowing portions of the law to stand on their own while severing others would require the sentencing scheme to be rewritten.

While acknowledging the General Assembly’s intent, the Supreme Court agreed with the trial court that the sentencing scheme is now impermissible, stat: “While we do not question the legislature’s wisdom of the necessity of severe penalties for those dealing in illegal drugs near our commonwealth’s schools, for the reasons that follow, we are constrained to conclude that the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Alleyne renders Section 6317 unconstitutional and, further, that in light of clear legislative intent, severance of the violative provisions from the stature is not permissible.”

It will be interesting to see what, if anything, our legislature does to address this issue in the coming months.

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