Pennsylvania’s Drug and Gun Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Laws Ruled Unconstitutional

Post Date: June 17, 2015

What happened in Pennsylvania?

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania issued an opinion on June 15 that found unconstitutional the state’s Drug Free School Zones Act, which set mandatory minimum sentences for selling drugs near schools. The court’s reasoning applies to nearly all of the state’s drug- and gun-related mandatory minimum sentencing laws and will therefore invalidate those mandatory sentencing laws, too. The case is Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Hopkins.

What led to this decision?

In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Alleyne v. United States that, under the Sixth Amendment, facts that trigger increased mandatory minimum sentences must be pled in the indictment and found beyond a reasonable doubt by the jury.  No longer would judges be forced to impose an enhanced mandatory minimum on a mere finding that a “sentencing factor” was proven by a preponderance of the evidence (a lower standard than reasonable doubt).

In Pennsylvania, many drug and gun laws contain language that specifically violates Alleyne and requires judges to increase mandatory minimum sentences upon finding certain sentencing factors. In Hopkins, the law at issue was the Drug-Free School Zones Act. The act required a mandatory minimum sentence of two years if a defendant–who was convicted of a drug trafficking offense by the jury–was additionally found at sentencing to have done so within 1,000 feet of a school, college, or playground.

The decision turned on the difference between so-called “elements” of an offense and so-called “sentencing factors.” Per Alleyne, the Constitution requires that a defendant may not be sentenced to a mandatory minimum unless she has received notice of the elements of her offense (by way of an indictment) and those elements are proven beyond a reasonable doubt to the jury. Judges may use sentencing factors, but only to increase a sentence within the minimum and maximum sentences set by law.

Pennsylvania law specifically stated that trafficking drugs in a school zone was not an element of an offense and need not be stated in the indictment or proved to the jury.  Rather, the law called trafficking drugs in a school zone a sentencing factor and directed the judge to determine if the crime had been committed in a school zone. 

The state conceded that these provisions violated the U.S Supreme Court’s decision in Alleyne, but said the law could be fixed by having the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in essence rewrite it. The state said that jurors could simply be given questionnaires to demonstrate that they found beyond a reasonable doubt the elements of the offense, the necessary facts, to trigger the mandatory minimum sentence. The majority of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in Hopkins rejected this argument and said that rewriting the law was the responsibility of the legislature. It declared the school zone law unconstitutional.

Because many of the state’s drug- and gun-related mandatory minimum laws have language that is identical or similar to the provisions found unconstitutional in the Drug-Free School Zones Act, the mandatory minimum sentencing terms in those laws will be nullified, as well.