HOLLIDAYSBURG - An assistant Blair County district attorney said if a U.S. Supreme Court decision that has put Pennsylvania's mandatory sentencing laws on the shelf locally becomes retroactive, it will "open the floodgates to thousands of people."
Attorney Pete Weeks has been prosecuting drug cases in Blair County for seven years, and he has pursued mandatory sentences in many of them, particularly when it comes to major drug dealers who are part of an organization.
Weeks has helped prosecute cases in the past couple of years stemming from Operation Last Call, which broke up an Baltimore-to-Altoona cocaine distribution ring.
Those convicted as part of Last Call received mandatory sentences, and in at least one case, the Pennsylvania Superior Court has already ordered resentencing. Natasha Miller, 32 of Altoona, filed an appeal of her 16-32 years behind bars and is to be resentenced.
The Alleyne v. United States decision said juries must decide whether mandatory sentences, such as for the weight of the drugs or dealing in a school zone, should be imposed.
Blair County judges earlier this year ruled that based on the decision, Pennsylvania's procedure for mandatory sentences is unconstitutional. Previously judges decided on mandatory sentences after a defendant was found guilty.
Weeks and Blair County District Attorney Richard A. Consiglio have argued the problem is easily corrected by permitting prosecutors to include the possibility of a mandatory sentence as part of the charges against a suspect and allow the jury to decide.
Defense attorneys like Thomas M. Dickey said that isn't good enough and maintain the mandatory sentencing laws must be rewritten by the Legislature. A majority of Blair County judges agreed.
Rasheed Meyers, a Brooklyn-born drug dealer who was sentenced in 2003 to serve 20-40 years behind bars for operating a drug distribution organization in Altoona, filed a petition last week in the Blair County Prothonotary's Office contending the Alleyne decision should be retroactive and that two five- to 10-year sentences he received should be vacated.
Weeks opposes the retroactive application of Alleyne pointing out it would mean reopening the sentencing portion of thousands of cases.
He said that Pennsylvania courts have not addressed the question of retroactivity, but he said that in a recent opinion by Blair County Judge Timothy M. Sullivan, the issue was discussed.
Sullivan sentenced Sean Graham to 15-30 years in prison for drug offenses.
His case was unusual in that he agreed to plead guilty and serve a prison sentence with a minimum of five years more than the prosecution was seeking if a charge against his then-girlfriend was reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor.
Even though he agreed to a longer sentence, he could have gotten 20-40 years had the mandatories been invoked.
In February, Graham said he wanted to withdraw his guilty pleas because he was under the undue influence of his girlfriend, who wanted to save her bar, and he didn't want to expose himself to the lengthy mandatory sentences.
Sullivan rejected his request to withdraw his guilty plea based on his girlfriend's influence, pointing out that he agreed to a longer sentence to save the girlfriend's bar, which she is still operating.
Graham, whose case is considered closed, also argued that he was facing mandatories of up to 40 years and that was a factor in his decision.
While Pennsylvania courts have yet to address the retroactive nature of Alleyne, Sullivan noted in the Graham case, "There is no indication in Alleyne that the Supreme Court made its holding retroactive to cases on collateral review."
Since Alleyne had not been decided when Graham entered his guilty pleas, his attorney's advice that he faced a maximum of 40 years behind bars was "reasonable, appropriate and accurate," Sullivan stated.
"As a result, we are unable to conclude that Alleyne affords the defendant herein any retroactive relief," the judge concluded in an opinion issued earlier this month.
A spokeswoman for the state Attorney General's Office indicated this week that AG Kathleen Kane no comment on the possible retroactive effect of Alleyne.
Many of the drug prosecutions in Blair County are joint operations between the attorney general and the county.
For instance, Weeks joined with Senior Deputy Attorney General Dave Gorman in prosecuting the Last Call cases.