Monday, June 2, 2014

Confusion reigns with Pennsylvania mandatory minimum sentencing

A U.S. Supreme Court decision last year 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, reported The Associated Press.
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.
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.
If the state’s highest court agrees, the General Assembly could amend the statutes to let juries impose mandatory minimums or eliminate such sentences altogether.
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