Court rebukes area judge
Zanic overstepped role in dismissing lifer’s drug case
The Pennsylvania Superior Court, in an opinion this week, concluded that a Huntingdon County judge abused his power when he dismissed felony drug charges against an inmate serving life without parole for first-degree murder.
In a February opinion laden with sarcasm, Huntingdon County President Judge George N. Zanic lambasted the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections for filing charges against Sammy Hill, 52, who was serving a life term in the State Correctional Institution at Smithfield, Huntingdon County.
The judge ruled that Pennsylvania State Police did nothing wrong in filing the charges against Hill after corrections officers found a small amount of synthetic marijuana in his cell.
But he questioned the wisdom of prosecuting a life-term inmate for offenses that could result in another 12 years behind bars.
“Is it really worth all this time and cost to taxpayers to tell a life inmate that once he dies, he will have to serve an additional 12 years?” Zanic asked.
Zanic wrote, “This court (and this community) is all too familiar with the risks and problems presented by illicit drugs in our prisons.”
But he stated, “Prosecuting and sentencing (Hill) serves none of the goals of our criminal justice system. There is no additional deterrence, protection of the public or retribution to be had here.”
While the judge said he appreciated the danger of drugs within a prison, he concluded, “The Department of Corrections should focus its resources more on effective methods to reduce the influx of (and demand for) narcotics in its facilities than on futile prosecutions that serve no real purpose.”
He recommended that inmates who are caught with drugs in a state prison should instead be charged with a series of summary offenses that are punishable by fines paid by the inmate from his prison account.
In a footnote to his opinion, Zanic questioned why Pennsylvania taxpayers should “foot the bill spent on each of these meaningless cases.”
He went on to say he intended to review and reject such prosecutions in the future.
The Pennsylvania Superior Court, in an opinion written by Judge Correale F. Stevens, strongly rebuked Zanic for abusing his powers, stating, “A trial court cannot be permitted, as here, to ignore the separation of powers doctrine and to usurp the power not only of the District Attorney but also the Legislature, the Department of Corrections, defense lawyers and juries as well.”
The panel of judges that included Stevens, Maria McLaughlin and Deborah A. Kunselman cited a recent state Supreme Court decision that explained the separation of powers doctrine underlying Pennsylvania’s Constitution.
“The rationale underlying this separation of powers is that it prevents one branch of government from exercising, infringing upon or usurping the powers of the other two branches — thus to avert the danger inherent in the concentration of power in any single branch or body.”
The Superior Court opinion concluded that Zanic crossed the line in the Hill case, noting the judge dismissed the case “without statutory authority” and without “binding precedent.”
The Huntingdon judge also improperly speculated in his opinion that Hill would be convicted of the drug offenses.
And Zanic, according to the Superior Court, further crossed the line by indicating he intended to usurp the district attorney’s powers “going forward” by rejecting further prosecutions of some alleged criminal offenses.
Zanic was also criticized for characterizing the DA’s decision to bring charges in the Hill case as “insanity” and “misguided.”
“We cannot allow a trial court to bypass the constitutional processes in our system of government,” the opinion concluded.
The opinion means drug charges against Hill are reinstated and the case will return to Huntingdon County for “further proceedings.”
Hill, of Philadelphia, has a lengthy criminal record dating back to 1986 when he was 18 years old.
State court records indicated he was sentenced to life in prison for murder on April 29, 1994.
Hill has been transferred from SCI Smithfield to SCI Dallas.
Hill’s attorney, Christopher B. Wencker of Huntingdon, pointed out that the Hill case might not be that unusual.
As a defense attorney, Wencker said the Huntingdon County court system must deal with “dozens” of contraband cases from the state correctional institutions in the county.
He said he disagrees with Zanic on many issues, but he supports Zanic’s idea of handling these less serious cases from the institutions by classifying them as summary offenses and imposing fines.
The Hill case will require a 14-member jury and at least a day and a half for a trial.
It will cost thousands of dollars, he summed up.
The prosecutor of the case, Assistant District Attorney Julia Wilt could not be reached for comment Thursday because she was in court.