Pennsylvania Superior Court finds state’s mandatory minimum sentencing scheme unconstitutional

Earlier this week, the Pennsylvania Superior Court issued an opinion in Commonwealth v. Newman in which it declared the state’s mandatory minimum sentencing scheme for drug offenses committed with a firearm unconstitutional. The court’s decision was based on the recent opinion by the United States Supreme Court in Alleyne v. United States.

In Alleyne, the Supreme Court held that any fact that would increase a mandatory sentence must be submitted to a jury a proven beyond a reasonable doubt. However, in Pennsylvania sentence enhancing facts are submitted to a judge for purposes of sentencing, and the judge is only required to find such facts exist beyond a preponderance of the evidence. As a result, the Superior Court in Newman stated,

“Plainly, Section 9712.1 can no longer pass constitutional muster. . . Under Alleyne, the possession of the firearm must be pleaded in the indictment, and must be found by the jury beyond a reasonable doubt before the defendant may be subjected to an increase in the minimum sentence. As that is not the case instantly, we are constrained to vacate appellant’s sentence and remand for resentencing without regard for any mandatory minimum sentence prescribed by Section 9712.1.”

This is a major victory for any defendant in Pennsylvania that might have been facing a mandatory minimum sentence. Additionally, those who were recently convicted and sentenced under the now-unconstitutional scheme may also find their cases will be remanded. However, prosecutors in Pennsylvania will no doubt be submitting sentence enhancement facts to a jury from this point forward. Ultimately, the ruling falls short of ending mandatory minimum sentencing schemes altogether, but this case is certainly a step in the right direction.