Mandatory Minimum Sentences Imposed Pursuant To Sex Offenses Deemed Unconstitutional In Pennsylvania

In Pennsylvania, a “mandatory minimum sentence” is a sentence where the lower end of the sentence is dictated by statute – that is – created by the General Assembly. Specifically, the legislature sets the bottom of the sentence rather than the trial judge, as is the case when mandatory minimums are not in play. When mandatory minimums are not applicable, the trial judge has broad discretion in imposing a sentence and can craft a sentence to fit a case based on the unique circumstances presented. When a mandatory minimum sentence is applicable, the only discretion the sentencing judge has is to impose a sentence lengthier than the mandatory minimum, or run sentences concurrently/consecutively to one another.

In Alleyne v. United States, the United States Supreme Court held “facts that increase mandatory minimum sentences must be submitted to the jury” and must be found beyond a reasonable doubt. For example, if a mandatory minimum were only applicable if a certain weight of drugs were possessed, then that fact would have to be proven and found beyond a reasonable doubt by the jury. As most mandatory minimum sentences in Pennsylvania only had to be proven by a preponderance of the evidence to the trial judge, not the jury, at sentencing, these statutes were rendered unconstitutional the day Alleyne was decided. Commonwealth v. Newman, a Pennsylvania Superior Court case interpreting Alleyne, found the trial court could not circumvent Alleyne by empanelling a second jury to decide the factor triggering the mandatory minimum.

In an attempt to cure the defect, prosecutors attempted to simply add the “aggravating factor” such as weight of the drugs possessed to the jury charge, and have the jury make that finding beyond a reasonable doubt along with the underlying charges. These were the facts in Commonwealth v. Valentine, a recent Superior Court case. In Valentine, the Superior Court ruled: “In presenting those questions to the jury, however, we conclude…that the trial court performed an impermissible legislative function by creating a new procedure in an effort to impose the mandatory minimum sentences in compliance with Alleyne.”

In Commonwealth v. Wolfe, decided December 24, 2014, the Pennsylvania Superior Court applied the rationale behind Alleyne, Newman, and Valentine to mandatory minimums concerning sex offenses. In Pennsylvania, 18 Pa.C.S.A. § 9718 lists the mandatory minimum sentences for certain sex offenses, some as high as ten years. The statute applied in Wolfe required a ten year mandatory minimum sentence as the age of the victim was under the age of 16 and the offense was involuntary deviate sexual intercourse. These statutes, much like the drug statutes, impose a mandatory minimum due to aggravating factors that are not decided by the jury, and the Superior Court ruled them facially void.[1]

As you can see, the law in this area is vastly changing since Alleyne was decided in 2013. With such complicated issues, it is extremely important that you speak with an experienced criminal defense attorney
immediately if you are charged with a criminal offense that could include a mandatory minimum sentence. At the Mazza Law Group, P.C., our attorneys are well versed in all sentencing enhancement statutes and follow the case law surrounding this topic closely.

[1] Interestingly, the subsection of Involuntary Deviate Sexual Intercourse Wolfe was charged with had as an element of the offense a finding that the victim was under the age of 16, so all elements of the aggravating statute were actually decided by the jury when they found him guilty of the underlying charge. Nonetheless, the Superior Court ruled these mandatory minimum aggravating factors could not be “severed” from the penalty enhancement to save the statute from being deemed unconstitutional.

Mandatory Minimum Sentences Imposed Pursuant To Sex Offenses Deemed Unconstitutional In Pennsylvania was last modified: September 17th, 2015 by Steven Trialonas