Woman gets another chance to question mandatory sentence

HARRISBURG – An Altoona woman with two young children, sentenced 16 months ago to a stiff jail term for her role in a drug organization that distributed large amounts of cocaine in the Altoona area, will have another opportunity to argue for leniency because of a decision Monday by the Pennsylvania Superior Court.

The appeals court decision stems from a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that concluded potential mandatory minimum sentences represent a core element of the charges against a suspect and must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt before a jury.

If the prosecution is seeking a mandatory sentence for drug dealing in a school zone, or because of the weight of the drugs being sold, the jury must find in the guilt phase of the trial that a zone or weight limit was breached. Until the decision was issued in Alleyne v. United States, the mandatory sentence did not become an issue until the suspect was found guilty of a crime and appeared for the sentencing phase.

Under Pennsylvania’s mandatory sentencing guidelines, it was up to the prosecution – at sentencing – to present evidence that would allow a mandatory sentence, for instance proving that the drug sale took place within 1,000 feet of a school.

The sentencing judge would then decide if the mandatory applied.

Since the Alleyne decision, the Pennsylvania Superior Court has been sending cases back to the counties for resentencing.

A three-judge panel of the court, Jack A. Panella, Judith Ference Olson and David N. Wecht, on Monday issued a short opinion ordering a new sentence hearing for Natasha Miller, 32, of Altoona who was arrested in 2011 as a major figure in the Operation Last Call drug investigation.

The West Drug Task Force broke up the drug ring, which was transporting many kilos of cocaine from Baltimore to Altoona every couple of weeks and processing the cocaine for street distribution at the Corner Bar and Grill, 1001 Eighth Ave.

The drug distribution ring was led by Damion Floyd of Baltimore, an inmate at the State Correctional Institution, Camp Hill. He was sentenced in February to 23-60 years in prison.

Miller was his girlfriend, and it was argued that she was considered a major player because she helped operate the ring based on her communications with him as he served time.

In November 2012, she received 16-32 years in prison after pleading guilty to several charges before Judge Elizabeth Doyle. Some parts of the sentence were based on mandatories.

In the Monday order, the court took the unusual step of stating: “we caution the trial court that the mandatory minimum sentence is not available for sentencing purposes.”

That statement, according to Senior Deputy Attorney General Dave Gorman, has thrown the entire Alleyne situation in Pennsylvania into a state of confusion.

Does it mean Pennsylvania’s mandatory sentencing laws are no longer applicable? Does it mean a jury must be convened to determine if the mandatories apply, Gorman posed, noting Miller entered a guilty plea.

Gorman, who prosecuted the Operation Last Call cases, said at least three others linked to the organization who were convicted and sentenced last year – Kenneth Piner and Jermaine Samuel, both of Altoona, and Rodney Williams of Baltimore – were subject to mandatory sentences.

He has asked the appeals unit of the Attorney General’s Office to examine the possible effects of the Alleyne decision in Pennsylvania, particularly the Miller case, and decide if the case should be reargued before the Superior Court or a request for review by the state Supreme Court should ensue.

The Alleyne case is having an impact throughout Pennsylvania.

Blair County Judge Tim Sullivan is working on an opinion on mandatory minimum sentences in connection with a drug case in Blair County.

Courts in Lycoming and Chester counties have ruled the present mandatory sentencing laws unconstitutional.

A major drug case in Clearfield County involving 56-year-old Michael Clair Styers has been sent back for resentencing.

The Miller case in Blair County was particularly dramatic because Miller’s 16-32 year sentence meant she would not be able available to raise her children, ages 2 and 12. The sentencing hearing lasted 3 hours.

Her Altoona attorney, Joel Peppetti, said Tuesday that getting rid of the mandatory sentences imposed on Miller and having the judge sentence her within the middle range of the sentencing guidelines, could mean a substantial decrease in her sentence.

“I will definitely be arguing for a much lesser sentence,” Peppeti said.

A spokesperson for the attorney general said appeals attorneys in the office “are reviewing [the Miller case] and considering our options.”

Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.