MAX COTTON – A GUEST CONTRIBUTOR FROM THE PUBLIC DEFENDER’S OFFICE – DELVES DEEP INTO THE SUPREME COURT’S ANALYSIS IN ITS GAME-CHANGING HOPKINS DECISION
In a post-Alleyne world, decisions like the one issued by the PA Supreme court in Commonwealth v. Hopkins highlight a changing of the tide regarding the applicability of minimum mandatory sentences.
In a decision published June 15, Justice Todd authored the majority opinion ruling that sentencing provisions found under 18 Pa. C.S. § 6317(a), also known as the Drug-Free School Zone Act, which apply higher mandatory sentences for drug trafficking crimes that occur within school zones are unconstitutional. The court relied heavily on the reasoning of Alleyne.
In Alleyne, the United States Supreme Court held that under the Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution a jury must find beyond a reasonable doubt any facts that increase a mandatory minimum sentence.
Although recognizing the effect of the Alleyne decision on the Drug- Free School Zone Act, the Commonwealth argues in Hopkins that such a problem can be alleviated by severing the provisions of the Drug-Free School Zone Act that are in direct conflict with Alleyne or by providing juries with special verdict forms.
The PA Supreme Court disagrees such remedies bring the statute within compliance with Alleyne. The Court finds that after stripping the Drug-Free School Zone Act of its unconstitutional provisions, the remaining sections would be incapable of complying with the General Assembly’s intentions that the Act was promulgating. The Court continues by stating that the use of special verdicts was not contemplated by the legislature when the Drug-Free School Zone Act was brought to fruition and would be improper if provided to a jury under the requirements of Alleyne.
Following the ruling in Alleyne, Hopkins is perhaps one of the first dominos the PA Supreme Court has tipped over as the legal community begins to see the evaporation of an era of sentencing courts constrained by mandatory minimums.