Welcome to the Roundtable, a forum for incisive commentary and analysis
on cases and developments in law and the legal system.
on cases and developments in law and the legal system.
By Cary Holley
Cary Holley is a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania studying Political Science.
Mandatory minimums, rules that apply an inflexible minimum sentence requirement to certain crimes, have been a part of our penal law since the late 18th century. Despite their long-established existence, questions remain on how to properly implement them in the court of law. A series of Supreme Court cases have deliberated the issue and those decisions have had implications for lower courts. The precedent set by Alleyne v. United States, for example, has led to confusion about mandatory minimums here in Pennsylvania.
From the late 20th century and onward, legislators have enacted a number of mandatory minimum penalties for drug crimes, crimes involving firearms, and more in an effort to get ‘tough on crime’.  However, relatively soon after Congress established a mandatory minimum sentence for possessing a firearm, a case challenging the implementation of the rule made its way to the highest court in the land.
In 2010, a jury in Virginia convicted Allen Alleyne of robbery and possession of a firearm. Consequently, the mandatory minimum sentence associated with the firearm was included in his sentence. Alleyne appealed the decision and three years later the United States Supreme Court ruled on the case and set an important precedent: If an element of a crime increases the sentence (i.e. an element that demands a mandatory minimum), then that element must be presented to a jury and found to be true beyond a reasonable doubt.  Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the majority opinion, and cited the Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury as his reasoning. It is important to note that this decision directly overruled past precedents, such as Harris v. United States (2002). In the Harris case, the Supreme Court ruled that only an element that increases a mandatory maximum sentence is to be deliberated by a jury. 
This now brings us to the implications of the Alleyne precedent for Pennsylvania. The primary issue that became a concern in the wake of Alleyne is the constitutionality of section 6317 of the Pennsylvania Crime Code. The criminal sentencing rules of the Pennsylvania General Assembly, enacted in 1997, contain direct contradictions to the 2013 Alleyne Supreme Court decision. Section b of the “Drug-free school zones” statute, which enforces a mandatory minimum sentence of two years for someone over 18 caught selling drugs near a school, states: “the provisions of this section shall not be an element of the crime.”  Later in the section, the statute declares that in order to determine the applicability of the mandatory minimum, the court needs to find the fact true by a “preponderance of the evidence.” The “preponderance” standard of proof is noticeably lower than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard that Alleyne requires.
Consequently, two years after Alleyne, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled the aforementioned section “constitutionally infirm” in Pennsylvania v. Hopkins. 
However, after the clause was ruled as unconstitutional, the issue of severability came up. Now that parts of the statute were deemed invalid, what was to happen to the non-problematic parts? In Hopkins, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the “unoffending provisions” of Section 6317 were not severable. They came to this conclusion because they found that once all of the unconstitutional sections were removed, what remained was too incomplete. The court then stated that the task of rewriting the section was a job for the legislature, whose legislative function the court did not wish to “judicially usurp.”  This demonstrates an admirable allegiance to the separation of powers.
The Hopkins decision then begs the question: what does the ruling mean for mandatory minimums in Pennsylvania today? The Pennsylvania General Assembly introduced a bill in the Senate on January 27th of this year that corrects the “constitutionally infirm” clauses of the statute on school zone drug penalties. It was referred to the Judiciary Committee on the same date.  Whether it will become law is yet to be determined. Thus, the fate of mandatory minimums in Pennsylvania is not certain. Furthermore, considering that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has allowed the precedent to be applied retroactively in some cases, even past mandatory minimum convictions seem to be up for deliberation. 
Perhaps what deserves the most attention out of all of this is the fact that the Alleyne decision was needed to overrule past precedents and the Pennsylvania Crime Code. Why did both the judiciary and legislature both believe that it was justifiable to not hold elements that carry mandatory minimums to the same burden of proof as other elements of a crime? When imposing a conviction that carries the guaranteed weight of “x” number of years in prison, should the standard of proof not be just as high if not higher? When forming our laws, it is fundamental to recognize the substantial power that mandatory minimums exert. So, while such laws align well with the “get tough on crime” rhetoric that satisfies many, it is crucial to remember not to get so tough on crime that Constitutional rights are infringed upon.
 “Chapter 2: History of Mandatory Minimum Penalties and Statuary Relief Mechanisms." United States Sentencing Commission. 2011. Accessed February 20, 2017. http://www.ussc.gov/sites/default/files/pdf/news/congressional-testimony-and-reports/mandatory-minimum-penalties/20111031-rtc-pdf/Chapter_02.pdf
 "Alleyne v. United States." Oyez. 2012. Accessed February 20, 2017. https://www.oyez.org/cases/2012/11-9335.
 “Pennsylvania v. Hopkins (majority).” Justia. 2015. Accessed February 20, 2017. http://law.justia.com/cases/pennsylvania/supreme-court/2015/98-map-2013.html
 “Section 6317. Drug-free school zones.” General Assembly of Pennsylvania. 1997. Accessed February 20, 2017. http://www.legis.state.pa.us/WU01/LI/LI/CT/HTM/18/00.063.017.000..HTM
 “Senate Bill No. 253.” General Assembly of Pennsylvania. January 27, 2017. Accessed February 20, 2017. http://www.legis.state.pa.us/cfdocs/legis/pn/public/btCheck.cfm?txtType=HTM&sessYr=2017&sessInd=0&billBody=S&billTyp=B&billnbr=0253&pn=0233
 “Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. James Newman.” The Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania. August 20, 2014. Accessed February 20, 2017. http://www.pacourts.us/assets/opinions/Superior/out/j-e01002-14o%20-%201019151762532003.pdf#search=%22alleyne%22
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