Appellant brings this appeal challenging the constitutionality of one of Pennsylvania’s mandatory minimum sentencing statutes, 42 Pa.C.S.A. § 9712.1, following the United States Supreme Court’s holding in Alleyne v. United States, U.S. , 133 S.Ct. 2151 (2013). We find that Alleyne does indicate that the sentencing practice under Section 9712.1 is unconstitutional.
-Judge Ford Elliot, August 20, 2014, writing for an en banc Superior Court.
Just yesterday, the Pennsylvania Superior Court released an opinion in Commonwealth v. Newman, that seems to provide some direction to divided Pennsylvania Common Pleas Courts left to fend for their own in the wake of the United States Supreme Court Alleyne v. United States decision.
Let’s break this down simply. In Alleyne, the Supreme Court held that all facts that increase a mandatory minimum sentence must be submitted to a jury and found true beyond a reasonable doubt.
In many states, Pennsylvania included, mandatory minimum sentences could be imposed by a judge who found certain facts to be true only by a preponderance of the evidence at sentencing.
Alleyne held this scheme unconstitutional.
Prosecutors in Pennsylvania have been fighting to apply mandatory minimum sentences ever since. But one by one, counties across Pennsylvania have been finding mandatory minimum sentences unconstitutional.
What Happened in Newman?
In Commonwealth v. Newman, the defendant was arrested following several controlled drug buys at an apartment in Glenside, Pa. Based on those buys, the police got a search warrant for the property, and found a “large quantity” of crack cocaine, drug paraphernalia, and a handgun a few feet away from the drugs.
The defendant went to trial, where the jury found him guilty of possession with intent to deliver, among other crimes. The prosecutor filed a “Notice of Intent to Seek Mandatory Sentence” under Pennsylvania’s gun & drug law, 42 Pa. C.S. §9712.1, which means a mandatory 5-10 years for a person found in possession of a firearm and drugs. The defendant was sentenced overall to 5-10 years.
He appealed, and the Superior Court affirmed his sentence on June 12, 2013. But just days later, on June 17, 2013, the United States Supreme Court released its Alleyne opinion, so Newman filed a petition for reconsideration, which the Superior Court granted.
Skipping over the legalese, after a review of trial court opinions from the Courts of Common Pleas across Pennsylvania, the Superior Court in Newman ultimately found that “the very trial courts entrusted with the imposition of mandatory minimum sentences after Alleyne have found Section 9712.1 as a whole to be no longer workable[.]” Specifically, the Court found that the mandatory minimum sentencing provision at issue were not severable, and that under the statutory construction rules of Pennsylvania (1 Pa. C.S. §1925, Constitutional construction of statutes) the statute therefore as a whole must fail.
The Court then ruled that §9712.1 was unconstitutional, vacated Newman’s judgment of sentence, and remanded the case for resentencing “without consideration of any mandatory minimum sentence provided by Section 9712.1”.
What Does this Mean for Me?
If you’re not currently facing charges where mandatory minimum sentences may apply, then nothing, really.
But if you or a loved one is facing a case with a potential mandatory minimum sentence, then things change a lot.
Just today, I filed my first motion to bar application of a mandatory minimum sentence under 42 Pa.C.S. §9712.1 under Commonwealth v. Newman, in expectation of a hearing scheduled tomorrow in a client’s case.
We don’t yet know if the Commonwealth (the prosecutors trying to keep people locked up) is going to petition the Pennsylvania Supreme Court for allocatur (aka ask them for permission to appeal the Superior Court’s judgment), but we’ll find out soon.
I’ll be paying close attention in the meantime.
Congrats to Patrick I. McMenamin, Jr. for this victory for the people of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
Update 2014.8.22: The Judge granted my motion without even requiring argument.