Comments Off on Criminal Law: PA Mandatory Minimums in Jeopardy?
A recent United States Supreme Court case has called into question many mandatory minimum laws in Pennsylvania and may have major impact on criminal law. In Alleyne vs. United States, the Court overturned a federal statute that allowed the trial court judge to sentence a defendant to an enhanced sentence based on facts that were determined by the judge at sentencing rather than the jury during deliberations. The Court stated that any fact that increases the penalty that a defendant faces is an element of the crime and must be determined by a jury. Alleyne vs. United States.
Many mandatory minimum sentence statutes in PA are worded similarly to the federal statute that was struck down in Alleyne vs. United States. Many criminal cases involving drug trafficking or delivery have enhancements that increase the penalty for the offense based on additional facts that are to be determined at the time of sentencing by a judge. For instance, whether the delivery or sale of narcotics was in school zone is one fact. How much the controlled substance weighed could be another fact. Up until the Alleyne decision, judges in Pennsylvania have been determining whether mandatories or enhanced penalties applied at the time of sentencing. Since the Alleyne decision, prosecutors have been trying to get around the Alleyne decision by simply adding the facts that would constitute an enhanced penalty to the jury questionnaire, essentially creating a new crime.
The problem with this approach, as many PA attorneys have pointed out recently, is that prosecutors do not have the authority to create new law. The District Attorney’s Office is a part of the executive branch. Creating law is a task left to the legislative body of government. Attorney’s have begun to argue that because the Alleyne case makes similar PA laws unconstitutional, no mandatories or enhancements can be imposed until the legislature creates new statutes that would comply with the decision in Alleyne. A few judges across the state have agreed and have struck down those statutes effectively ruling some mandatory minimum statutes to be unconstitutional and therefore not applicable.
The PA Supreme court has decided to hear argument on whether certain mandatory minimum statutes and enhancements are still applicable as constituted in PA. However they rule is going to have a major impact on the criminal justice system in PA.
Comments Off on PA Judge’s Sentence Upheld by U.S. Supreme Court
Recently the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the conviction and sentence of a Luzerne County, PA Court of Common Pleas Judge in the “Kids for Cash” scandal. His sentence was 28 years behind bars. The “Kids for Cash” scandal came about when a few Judges in Luzerne County were accused and convicted of giving out harsh detention sentences to juvenile criminal offenders in order to increase the population at contracted detention facilities. The allegation was that the judges in question would then receive cash kick backs from those facilities.
To some, 28 years behind bars may seem like a harsh sentence for someone who had no prior criminal record but to others the sentence may not have been harsh enough. Judges should not be punished more severely just because they are a judge but this situation warranted a severe sentence because the judge used his position as a judge to commit the crime.
When judges use their position as a judge to commit illegal activity it destroys the public’s trust in the criminal justice system. If the people start to believe that judges are corrupt and can be compromised then the people will cease submitting themselves to the will of authority. We have to remember that laws are only as strong as the public’s willingness to submit to them. The government is only as strong as the public allows it to be. We, the people, agree to be governed. If the population as a whole started to believe that the government or their institutions were corrupted, then the population would no longer agree to be governed and there could be but one conclusion. Anarchy.
For those reasons, anytime there is corruption or criminal activity involving an institution that is fundamental to our continued society, leniency and mercy from the courts should be hard to come by. The courts will feel the need to send a message that abuse of power that undermines the entire system cannot and will not be tolerated.
Comments Off on Criminal Law: Consequences of Underage Drinking
For many college age adults consuming alcohol before the age of 21 seems like a right of passage. For others, Underage Drinking in Pennsylvania can be a criminal offense with serious collateral consequences.
It is no secret that college students consume alcohol. Studies show that 80% of college students consume alcohol. The problem is that few of these kids/young adults who are under 21 know the consequences and long term damage to their reputation that can come with an Underage Drinking criminal conviction.
For starters, an Underage Drinking conviction in Pennsylvania will result in a 90 day license suspension. Regardless of whether the person was caught drinking walking down the street or in their home they would get a 90 day license suspension. Many are surprised to learn that a person could lose their privilege to drive for committing a criminal infraction that has nothing to do with driving. Unfortunately most people don’t realize this until after they have either pled guilty or been found guilty and receive a notice from Penndot a month later advising that they have to turn their driver’s license in and begin serving a suspension.
Secondly, the conviction itself can become a blemish on a person’s record and prevent or hinder their ability to obtain certain employment opportunities. Employers in certain industries like teaching or child care may shy away from a potential employee who they feel may have alcohol issues. A DUI conviction or an Underage Drinking conviction could be a signal to the potential employer that the person has a drinking problem. The employer may not be willing to take a risk on someone that they don’t feel that they can trust.
If someone is facing an Underage Drinking charge in Pennsylvania, they should consult with a Pennsylvania criminal attorney as soon as possible to discuss their options.
As the Superbowl approaches and the backgrounds of some of the participants are revealed, most people were shocked to learn that Bronco receiver Demaryius Thomas has a grandmother who is serving a life sentence in prison for drug distribution. What was shocking was not that his grandmother was in prison, but the fact that she was serving a life sentence for a non violent crime.
Unfortunately this type of situation is not an isolated event and occurs in every state in the country, including Pennsylvania. Drug crimes in Pennsylvania are treated more severely than some crimes of violence. For instance, a person with no prior record who burglarizes someone’s home or assaults someone and seriously injures them will likely get less time in jail than someone who is growing marijuana in their home. Most people would agree that the person who is breaking into someone’s house or assaulting someone is committing the more egregious crime, but our sentencing laws don’t reflect society’s views.
Prescription Fraud has quickly become one of the most oppressive sentences that a person can receive. Many of the people who are committing these crimes become addicted to Vicodin or Oxycontin through no fault of their own as they are trying to deal with pain from a serious injury. The addiction caused them to take desperate measures in order to cope with the pain, including writing fake prescriptions in order to continue to get the drugs after their doctors stop prescribing them. The likely sentence in Pennsylvania for someone with no prior record who obtains at least 100 pills through this type of fraud is a minimum of 2 years in the state prison. To compare, someone with no prior record who commits the violent crime of robbery will likely serve a sentence that is less than a year in the county prison.
Pennsylvania Drug sentences can also become oppressive when law enforcement allow a suspect to commit multiple drug sales or deliveries before they make an arrest. Law enforcement in Pennsylvania purposely allow their target to continue to operate so that when they finally make an arrest the person can be sentenced on each and every sale to a separate and consecutive jail sentence. For drug delivery crimes, the penalty increases if a person has a prior offense for the same crime. Not a prior conviction, but a prior offense. So if the police watch a suspect sell drugs on three different days before they make their arrest, that person if convicted would be looking at increased penalties on the 2nd and 3rd sale because the first sale would be considered a prior offense even though there was only one arrest made.
There is no other crime that I can think of where law enforcement watch the crime happen but intentionally choose not to make an arrest. Imagine the police watching a violent home invasion occur or a sexual assault and declining to make an arrest so that the person could commit one or two more home invasions or assaults before making the arrest. The public would be outraged. Of course, the counter argument here would be “Well of course the public would be outraged but the police would never let that happen because the person committing that crime is dangerous and needs to be removed from the streets.” But that argument would expose the irony inherent in the way we sentence drug offenders compared to other offenses. The urgency in which society wants to apprehend someone is usually reflected in the severity of the sentence someone receives for that crime. There is no urgency from society to take a drug offenders off the streets even when those crimes are witnessed by the police but yet some of the most lengthy sentences handed out in Pennsylvania are for drug offenders.
It’s time to take a look at the sentences being imposed on drug offenders in Pennsylvania. Does it seem fair that people are serving years and decades in prison for non violent crimes when rape offenders and and other violent offenders are back on the streets in less time?
Comments Off on Geography’s role in Criminal Justice
Whether a person is charged with Driving Under the Influence (DUI), Simple Assault, Burglary, Theft, Firearms or Drug Offenses, they ultimately want to know how the charges they are facing will affect their life. The answer to that question depends on multiple factors, but none more important than the geographic location the crime occurred.
Most people are aware and accept that laws vary from state to state, but what most people don’t realize is that within each state, the laws can be enforced in drastically different ways. This is particularly true in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania where there are 67 counties headed by 67 District Attorneys, each of whom have wide latitude to enforce the laws in a way they see fit. One particular District Attorney’s Office may seek harsher penalties for crimes committed in their county then a neighboring county’s District Attorney may seek.
ARD (Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition) is a diversionary program offered for first time offenders throughout Pennsylvania that allows a person to do community service and other programs in exchange for a dismissal of the charges. While ARD is allowed by state statute, each District Attorney is allowed to set the parameters for what crimes they will accept for the ARD program and dictate what conditions must be met before the charges are dismissed. Some DAs may allow a person who has committed a crime of violence ( Assault, Burglary etc.) entry into a program while other DA’s may limit entry to first time Driving Under the Influence (DUI) offenses.
In some cases, the county where the arrest occurred may have certain rules and procedures in place that could be a benefit or a detriment to someone arrested for a crime. For instance, someone arrested for a 2nd DUI with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) that is .16 or higher is facing a state mandated minimum sentence of 90 days of incarceration. Each county is allowed to set criteria for how that 90 days will be served. For example, in Chester County it is possible to have the 90 day sentence broken down into 15 days of actual jail time and 75 days of house arrest with permission to leave the house for work or school. If a person’s arrest occurred in neighboring Lancaster County, it would only be possible to have the 90 days broken down to 45 days of actual jail and 45 days of house arrest. Bucks County may even allow a person to do the entire 90 days on house arrest. The same crime netting a person 45 more days of jail in one county compared to another. This additional 45 days could mean the difference in keeping their job or losing their job and having to start all over.
Does this lack of uniformity in the Pennsylvania Justice System seem fair and appropriate? Should two people charged with the same crime who happen to be in different counties get drastically different sentences? As with most issues, it is open to debate.
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