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Defendants’ rights expanded in drug crimes cases

A recent ruling from the highest court in the nation has left some Pennsylvania judges confused about the proper method for applying the law in a variety of drug cases. The ruling, which was handed down in 2013, determined that juries — not judges — should be responsible for deciding whether a defendant committed certain drug crimes. Those drug crimes include specific allegations that could involve a mandatory minimum sentence. Now, some experts say that entire sections of Pennsylvania state law could actually be considered unconstitutional. When an individual is convicted of certain types of crimes, a judge must consider whether certain “triggers” have been met to require a mandatory minimum sentence. Those include factors such as whether the drug crimes were committed within a school zone. A judge has traditionally been responsible for using the burden of proof to mete out those penalties — now, the Supreme Court would have that method changed to include the jury that convicted the defendant. Currently, juries only decide whether the individual is guilty of the allegations. In some areas, Pennsylvania judges have decided to stop using mandatory minimum sentences altogether, pending a general rewrite of certain sections of the state’s law. So far, two people have benefited — one man who was accused of drug crimes in a school zone, and another charged with possessing a weapon and marijuana at the same time. Other judges have already been asking juries to evaluate the “trigger” decisions, even though it goes against state law. Prosecutors are bemoaning the fact that mandatory minimum sentences will now be in the hands of a jury. Legal experts say the change will protect criminal defendants from unfair mandatory minimums that are dependent on the ruling of a single person. This will, in essence, expand the rights of those who are mounting a criminal defense in the state of Pennsylvania. Source:  The Times Leader, “Supreme Court ruling snarls sentencing minimums” 23 May 2014

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