Hearing to weigh constitutionality of mandatory minimums

HOLLIDAYSBURG – Blair County judges will make a third attempt to hold a hearing on the constitutionality of mandatory sentences in Pennsylvania, as the number of protests among defense attorneys to such sentences is snowballing.

Blair County President Judge Jolene G. Kopriva on Thursday issued an order scheduling a hearing for 4:30 p.m. April 28.

Five Blair County judges plus a senior judge are expected to participate in the en banc hearing.

The judges are attempting to write an opinion that would clarify the procedure at least locally for the imposition of mandatory sentences.

Blair County prosecutors have been seeking mandatory sentences for distribution of illegal drugs within 1,000 feet of a school, 200 feet of a recreation area or based on the weight of drugs.

The Blair County District Attorney Richard A. Consiglio has also sought mandatories in firearm and child abuse cases.

But the procedure in Pennsylvania has been using for implementing mandatories was found unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court last summer in a case known as Alleyne v. United States.

The nation’s highest court concluded that a jury or judge during trial must determine if the facts of a case support a mandatory prison sentence.

In Pennsylvania, the procedure had been for a judge during sentencing to decide if a mandatory sentence was applicable.

Prosecutors in Pennsylvania and in Blair County agree the old procedure is unconstitutional, but Consiglio and his staff are attempting to remedy the situation by asking permission to amend charges in drug and firearm cases to include the conditions for a mandatory sentence as part of the suspects’ upcoming trials.

Defense attorneys like Thomas M. Dickey and Steven P. Passarello are arguing the proposed procedure is improper and that mandatory laws are unconstitutional at this point.

Two previous attempts to hold an argument and write an opinion in Blair County have been canceled. Kopriva’s order scheduling a new date for a hearing notes “due to the large number of cases before this court which share issues raised by these motions.”

The motions continue to be filed. On Thursday Passarello, on behalf of a woman charged with operating a methamphetamine laboratory, Ginny Ann Perdew of Claysburg, challenged the prosecution’s attempts to impose mandatories by amending her charges .

Attorney Phillip O. Robertson filed a challenge in a drug case against Lisa M. Richards of Altoona. The prosecution is seeking a two-year mandatory based on sales within a school zone.

The hearing on April 28 will focus on two cases in which suspects are represented by Dickey.

Jermaine Morgan, 41, of Altoona faces gun and drug charges in two cases based on arrests that occurred in 2010.

The other case involves Steven M. Weyant, 30, of Altoona, arrested in 2012 for allegedly distributing heroin.

Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.