Judge weighs sentence enhancements

A Blair County senior judge has taken on the task of implementing a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that says sentence enhancements for crimes like selling drugs in a school zone should be decided by a jury, not a judge.

The issue, stemming from a 5-4 Supreme Court decision five months ago in the Alleyne v. United States case, arose Thursday before Senior Judge Hiram A. Carpenter, who is presiding over charges against Steven Michael Weyant, 30, of Altoona, an alleged heroin dealer.

Weyant and two associates were supposedly part of a group selling large amounts of heroin in the Altoona area last year.

Weyant was arrested in a buy-bust operation last December.

The prosecution, led by Assistant District Attorneys Peter Weeks and Derek Elensky, will be asking that Weyant receive many years behind bars because the drug deals he allegedly is associated with occurred within 250 feet of a park or play area at the Cherry Grove Apartment Complex and within 1,000 feet of the Washington-Jefferson Elementary School and because Weyant lived in a residence with firearms.

State law provides for sentence enhancements of five years for the gun offense and two years each for the distributing drugs within a school zone and near a children’s play park.

Such enhancements in the past were reviewed and imposed after a suspect had been found guilty of drug-related offenses.

Previously, the prosecution during a sentencing hearing would have witnesses testify to show that the dealer was selling close to a school or park or that he had access to firearms.

It was up to a judge to impose a sentence that took the enhancements into consideration.

The U.S. Supreme Court last June ruled that mandatory sentences are an “element” of the crime and therefore must be determined beyond a reasonable doubt by a jury when it deliberates the case.

Prosecutors and Weyant’s lawyers, Thomas M. Dickey and David J. Kaltenbaugh, have no disagreement over the meaning of the federal court decision but are at odds concerning how to implement it in Blair County.

Weyant was to go to trial, charged with three sets of drug offenses, on Thursday, but the trial had to be postponed so that the judge could determine how the Alleyne decision affects Weyant’s case.

Prosecutors have asked that they be allowed to amend the charges against Weyant to include the enhancements, meaning that they would be presented to the jury during the trial.

Dickey countered by stating the prosecution has presented no evidence that would permit the enhancements to be part of the trial, so Carpenter held what amounted to a preliminary hearing on the enhancements.

Three detectives, Christopher Moser and Joseph Merrill of the Altoona Police Department and Thomas Brandt of the District Attorney’s Office, related the location of two drug buys.

One took place 103 feet from the playground, and the other occurred within 970 feet of the elementary school.

The officers stated that the apartment where the buy-bust took place on the 1300 block of Seventh Avenue contained two shotguns and a rifle. Even though the firearms belonged to others who lived in the apartment, they were in close proximity to Weyant’s bedroom.

Dickey argued that the testimony was not enough to warrant the presentation of the enhancements during the trial.

And, Dickey said, even if the enhancements are permitted to go to a jury, they should be presented in a second hearing if Weyant is found guilty of the overall drug-related charges.

He argued it would be prejudicial to Weyant if a jury heard testimony indicating the drug deals took place near a school and a park where children play or that Weyant, while dealing drugs, had access to firearms.

Carpenter did not make a decision on the issues Thursday, but he summarized his task by saying, “Gee, how do we make it right for everyone?”

He said he may discuss the issues with the county’s other judges because once decisions are made, it is likely they will establish a procedure to implement the Alleyne decision for drug cases in the future.