PA. COURT: Mandatory minimum sentences are 'unconstitutional,' many due relief

Locals charged with crimes involving drugs, guns or sex abuse could be due relief at sentencing, according to a high-court ruling.

A Pennsylvania Superior Court opinion has deemed mandatory minimum sentences “unconstitutional,” a ruling which could have major impact on countless cases here and across the state.

The high court made the statement Wednesday in its ruling of a Montgomery County case involving a man, James Newman, who received a mandatory 5-year sentence for possession of drugs and a gun.

The high court vacated that sentence, while calling the current “practice” of mandatory minimum sentencing unconstitutional.

Five justices agree with Justice Kate Ford Elliott on the entirety of her opinion.

Three other justices agree on the Montgomery County case, but not the full scope of Elliott’s opinion.

Local legal professionals say the opinion essentially quashes the current mandatory minimum sentencing scheme.

Will ruling affect repeat offenders, including two local sex offenders recently sentenced to life?

 “This removes a huge amount of power from the district attorney,” Lancaster defense lawyer Chris Patterson said, “and restores it to the (judges).”

Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman said the ruling is “terrible” for locals. He hopes the state Supreme Court will take action on the issue.

“In the short term, this is a huge blow to public safety and will have widespread ramifications for the law-abiding citizens of this county,” he said.

It isn’t clear if the ruling will apply to past cases. Locals say defendants still on active appeal can get relief and others also could qualify.

Federal cases will not be affected, locals said.

Mandatory minimum sentences are often implemented in armed robberies, sex offenses and crimes involving possession of drugs and guns. They are also invoked in crimes against infants and the elderly.

Essentially, the high court ruled that when a mandatory minimum sentence is utilized based on "elements" of certain crimes — such as the gun being present in the Newman case — a jury must determine if those elements are proven.

Regarding sentencing, the ruling brings much more discretion to judges.

“A lot of people didn’t like them,” local attorney Jeffrey Conrad said of mandatory minimums, “because you [take away] the judge’s authority.”

The ruling “recommits to the judges the ability to do what (they) want,” Conrad said. “Of course, the (defendants) will be happy.”

That doesn’t sit will with Stedman.

“Anytime you have a decision in which the people celebrating are convicted armed robbers and people who sell drugs to children,” he said, “I’m not sure there is much to say other than it is beyond disheartening.

“We are not talking about retail theft and forgery defendants here.”

Lancaster defense lawyer Michael Winters said he expects the decision to be appealed to the state Supreme Court.

Upon first review of the ruling, locals said, it likely won't impact mandatory sentences for drunk drivers involved in fatal crashes. Currently, those convicted of vehicular homicide while DUI face mandatory 3-year prison terms.

That mandatory is part of state sentencing law, which is different from scenarios affected by the ruling, locals said.

The state court based its opinion on a U.S. Supreme Court decision from June 2013, locals said.

That decision essentially states that a jury must rule on “elements” of a crime, such as whether a drug dealer was in possession of a gun.

While some see the ruling as a positive, Stedman said the negative impact could be widespread. He expects a population spike at Lancaster County Prison.

“(It) will undoubtedly increase as many drug dealers and robbers who would otherwise go to state prison will now get county sentences,” he said. “But, this is what the court has ruled and we will have to adjust and hope the (state) Supreme Court makes it right.”

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Brett Hambright is a Lancaster Newspapers staff writer who covers crime and the Lancaster County court system. He can be reached at bhambright@lnpnews.com or (717) 481-6026. You can also follow @BrettHambright on Twitter.