PA School Zone Drug Mandatory Minimum Sentences Unconstitutional

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The Superior Court recently ruled that the school zone drug mandatory minimum sentences is unconstitutional pursuant to the 2013 United States Supreme Court decision Alleyne v. United States. In Commonwealth v. Bizzel, the Superior Court ruled that mandatory minimum sentences for drug trafficking in school zones violated a defendant’s rights under the Sixth Amendment’s right to a jury, which applies to Pennsylvania through the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process protections.

A jury convicted Bizzel of delivering four Xanax pills in Philadelphia in June 2012. The trial court sentenced Bizzel to a term of 2-4 years in state prison pursuant to the mandatory minimum law. The trial court found that the sale of the Xanax more likely occurred within 1,000 of a school or 250 feet of a playground or recreation center.

The Superior Court found that the school zone mandatory provision violated Alleyne v. United States because the burden of proof only required that it was more likely to have occurred in a school zone. In Alleyne, the United States Supreme Court ruled that any fact that triggers a mandatory sentence is an element of the offense and must be found beyond a reasonable doubt by the jury.

In Bizzel, the Superior Court ruled that the school zone mandatory provision became an element of the offense. It further held that the provision in the statute which only required proof that the act more likely to occurred in the school zone was unconstitutional because it did not require a jury find that fact beyond a reasonable doubt. Additionally, that provision is not severable from the rest of the statute because without that provision laying out the burden of proof, the statute cannot be enforced.

In the near future, expect the Supreme Court to take up the issue of mandatory minimum sentences and the implications of Alleyne on Pennsylvania law.

By Matthew Quigg