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May 25, 2014

Detailing the Keystone State's enduring Alleyne problems

This local AP story from Pennsylvania, headlined "Supreme Court ruling snarls sentencing minimums," provides another review of the headaches that state courts are facing with its sentencing scheme in the aftermath of the US Supreme Court's Sixth Amendment ruling in Alleyne last year. Here are some excerpts:

A U.S. Supreme Court decision last year has prompted dozens of appeals in criminal cases across Pennsylvania and left judges scratching their heads on how to apply state laws on mandatory minimum sentences. The confusion has prompted meetings among judges, forced some judges to try out new jury instructions and even led some jurists to conclude that whole sections of state law are unconstitutional.

Legal experts say what happens next will be driven largely by cases already on appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. “No appellate court in Pennsylvania has gotten around to definitively deciding the question, and everybody, it seems, is waiting for someone else to decide it,” said St. Vincent College law professor Bruce Antkowiak, a former federal prosecutor and defense attorney.

The stumbling block is Alleyne v. United States, a high court decision stemming from a Virginia federal court case that found that juries, not judges, should decide whether a defendant committed crimes that trigger a mandatory minimum sentence. But Pennsylvania law says a jury decides a person’s guilt or innocence of the underlying crime, such as drug possession or robbery. A judge then uses a lower standard of proof to decide whether the mandatory sentencing “triggers” were proved — such as being in a school zone when drug dealing or brandishing a gun during the robbery.

Judges in at least one jurisdiction, Blair County in central Pennsylvania, recently decided to stop imposing mandatory minimum sentences altogether until the General Assembly rewrites the statutes. The judges made the decision after hearing arguments from prosecutors and a defense attorney for two men facing five-year mandatory minimums — one accused of dealing drugs in a school zone; the other charged with having a weapon while in possession of marijuana....

Since the Alleyne ruling, some Pennsylvania judges have begun asking juries to determine whether certain mandatory minimum triggers have been proved, even though state law doesn’t allow that. Other judges have ruled that Alleyne makes Pennsylvania criminal statutes containing mandatory minimum sentencing provisions unconstitutional in their entirety.

In eastern Pennsylvania, Lycoming County District Attorney Eric Linhardt said judges there first allowed juries to decide mandatory minimum sentences before reversing course and ruling the statutes illegal. “Ten cases are presently on appeal, and many others will soon follow,” Linhardt said, adding the impasse could affect 100 pending drug cases in his office.

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State courts would do well to just ignore all adverse Supreme Court decisions, unless they have external validation, and are evidence based. Should the DOJ thugs come to arrest them, go to trial, and demand a Daubert hearing.

Because this is a secular nation, arguments by authority, ipse dixits by lawyers on the bench, personal feelings by Justices, violate the Due Process Clause right to a fair trial. Although they think of themselves as little Caesars, with the power to enforce their feeling at the point of a gun, they are not. If science contradicts, science has to win.

Force the Supreme Court to join us in the modern era. Have Pennsylvania's Congressional delegation put limits on this idiot branch of government through judicial procedure legislation, not through any Amendment.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | May 25, 2014 7:29:59 PM

I agree with Supremacy Claus. They should not be allowed to abuse their power just because they can. They were placed there to serve the people, not to abuse them.

Posted by: Jeremy | May 26, 2014 5:34:36 AM

The legislators were also placed to serve the people, but one of the requirements of that service is upholding the rule of law as embodied in our written constitution and not ignoring it because it's convenient. If Pennsylvania law prevents drafting an indictment that allows minimum mandatory sentences to be constitutionally imposed, it is the legislature that has failed in their service.

That being said, in most states, the indictment contains the elements they have to prove, so I'd be shocked if they couldn't add "in a school zone" to the indictment. If the jury returns a general guilty verdict, the mandatory minimum would apply. It shouldn't be hard unless they are worried that they can't prove beyond a reasonable doubt that it was in a school zone (and, even then, the doctrine of lesser included offenses would cover them to prevent a not guilty verdict). But yeah, if they are unable to have special verdicts (which I'm not a fan of in criminal cases) and unable to add the sentencing factors to the indictment, then they shouldn't be imposing mandatory minimum sentences. Complaints about the Supreme Court abusing power applies to state court judges as well. The findings of fact should be based on what 12 jurors who are not institutional actors have to say.

Posted by: Erik M | May 26, 2014 11:33:13 AM

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