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.