HOLLIDAYSBURG - Blair County judges have ruled 4-2 that Pennsylvania's mandatory sentencing laws no longer apply because of a U.S. Supreme Court decision last summer that altered the procedure
for imposing enhanced sentences for crimes involving drugs, guns, child and elderly abuse and other socially sensitive issues.
The decision shocked Blair County District Attorney Richard A. Consiglio who emphatically said, "It was a bad decision."
"It is a sad day for victims. It is a sad day for law enforcement. It is a sad day for society," Consiglio said.
He said the Blair County decision will be appealed
to the Pennsylvania Superior Court.
He intends to take yet another step to rectify what he considers a wrong, stating he will contact legislative officials like Rep. John McGinnis, R-Altoona, and Sen. John H. Eichelberger Jr., R-9th District, to address the need for new stiff sentences for certain crimes.
Altoona defense attorney Thomas M. Dickey said he welcomes an appeal to the Superior Court.
He argued before Blair County's six judges just three weeks ago that Pennsylvania's mandatory sentences could not stand because part of the implementing procedures were found unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in Alleyne vs. United States.
The question in Blair County focused on the issue of "severability," or whether the Blair County District Attorney could amend present prosecutions to include a new procedure as outlined in the Alleyne case.
Dickey argued that it would be up to the legislature, which passed the law establishing the unconstitutional procedure, to rectify the problem by passing new laws, not up to the district attorney or courts to impose a new procedure.
"I am very, very pleased," Dickey said with the judges' decision.
"The Court needs to be applauded for this. It takes guts, and I am proud [of the judges]. It would have been so much easier to say, 'I'm going to come down on the side of the Commonwealth and let the Superior Court handle that.'"
"I'm proud to be part of it ... the checks and balances of the system," he said.
The decision by the judges was issued about 4 p.m. Wednesday.
The 33-page document included a majority opinion signed by President Judge Jolene G. Kopriva, Judges Elizabeth Doyle and Timothy M. Sullivan, and Senior Judge Hiram A. Carpenter.
Judge Sullivan authored the majority opinion.
The minority opinion was issued by Judges Wade Kagarise and Daniel J. Milliron.
Kagarise wrote the minority opinion.
The Alleyne decision in 2013 was the last in a line of federal rulings that have indicated factors like mandatory sentences that result in greater sentences must be submitted to a jury.
Pennsylvania mandatory sentencing laws ran counter to that line of reasoning.
Under the unconstitutional part of Pennsylvania's mandatory laws, the sentence enhancement was not considered an element of the crime but was a part of the sentencing phase of the case.
Its applicability was to be decided by a judge, not a jury.
The notification that a mandatory was in play took place after guilt had been decided. Under Alleyne, notice of a mandatory has to be part of the crime.
Under the former system, the judge was to decide if a mandatory was applicable "by a preponderance of the evidence." Now a jury must decide using a higher legal standard, "beyond a reasonable doubt."
Blair County's judges decided the issue was so important that all of them would sit together to hear the case, a situation that had never occurred before in a criminal matter.
Two cases involving drug distribution and firearms, involving Altoona residents Steven Weyant and Jermaine Morgan, were the focus of the argument.
Both men face long jail sentences if convicted, based on the application of the mandatories.
Consiglio was seeking to amend the charges against them to include the mandatory sentences, as specified by Alleyne, but Dickey argued that could not be done because the mandatories no longer are applicable.
"While the Common-wealth's argument that we should simply substitute a trial by jury for the existing language is appealing in its simplicity, the problem is that we find it violates our constitutional principles that underscore our system of government," stated the majority opinion.
The court would be in error, however, to proscribe a new procedure taking that task away from the legislature "with the stroke of a pen," the majority stated.
The minority countered, stating the procedures recommended in Alleyne are no different than procedures followed in thousands of criminal prosecutions nationwide, procedures that "are routinely addressed by the courts as a matter of constitutional law. Therefore, we agree with the Commonwealth that the standards in Alleyne can simply replace the procedure outlined in the now invalid statutes."
One thing both sides agreed with is that the whole mandatory sentencing issue will eventually land in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court because many other counties, like Lycoming and Lancaster agree with Blair's majority, while Centre County and others agree with the minority.
Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.