Imposition of a Mandatary Minimum Sentence Unconstitutional

Following the recent Supreme Court holding in Alleyne v. United States, 133 S.Ct. 2151 (2013), the Pennsylvania Superior Court found that imposition of a mandatary minimum sentence pursuant to 42 Pa.C.S.A. §9712.1 was unconstitutional. In Commonwealth v. Newman, the Court held that all facts that increase a sentence must be submitted to a jury and found true beyond a reasonable doubt rather than allow the trial judge to consider and rely on those facts when imposing a mandatory minimum sentence.

Newman was convicted of two counts of possession with intent to deliver, two counts of simple possession, one count of possession of drug paraphernalia, one count of dealing in proceeds of unlawful activities, one count of possession of an instrument of crime, and five counts of criminal conspiracy. Pursuant to §9712.1, because he allegedly was in possession of a firearm at the time of the commission of the crime, Newman was sentenced to five to 15 years imprisonment on one of the PWID convictions and a concurrent term of three to 10 years imprisonment on one of the conspiracy convictions. Newman appealed and his sentence was initially affirmed by the Superior Court. However, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Alleyne five days later. Defendant filed an application for reconsideration. That application was granted and re-argument was presented to the entire Court.

Under the mandatory minimum sentencing scheme of §9712.1, possession of a firearm was considered a sentencing factor to be determined by the trial court and not an element of the underlying crime to be determined by the jury beyond a reasonable doubt. A judge was able to impose a mandatory minimum sentence if he/she found certain facts true by a preponderance of evidence at sentencing rather than proof beyond a reasonable doubt at trial. However, the Alleyne court required any fact that increases the range of punishment to which a defendant is exposed be included in the indictment, presented to a jury and proven beyond a reasonable doubt. This was the reasoning followed by the Superior Court here. It is now no longer sufficient for a judge to find these facts at sentencing. Thus, Newman’s sentence had to be vacated and his case sent back to the trial court for re­-sentencing without regard for any mandatory minimum sentence prescribed by §9712.1.

It will be interesting to see if the Commonwealth appeals this matter to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and, if so, whether the Court agrees to hear their argument.

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