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PA Supreme Court Limits Sentence Enhancement for Drug Crimes Involving Guns

Pennsylvania sentencing guidelines are much more than just a list of ranges for specific offenses. They are a labyrinth of enhancements, minimums and caveats that laypeople consistently struggle to understand. In operation, these rules can have a significant impact on the sentence a person receives and can also steer the course of plea negotiations. That is why, when a court invalidates or limits one of these rules, criminal defense attorneys need to take notice.

Prior to 2013, Pennsylvania Law imposed a minimum sentence of five years in prison for anyone convicted of possession with intent to deliver a controlled substance while they or their accomplice was in physical possession or control of a firearm — whether the weapon was on the person of the defendant or an accomplice or in close proximity to the controlled substance. What exactly constituted “physical possession or control” or “close proximity” was subject to considerable debate. As a result, prosecutors often abused this sentencing provision.

In 2013, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court handed down a decision in Commonwealth v. Hanson that sought to reign in this provision:

  • Upon execution of a search warrant, police found drugs on the defendant’s person as well as throughout the house where he was found. They also found a loaded pistol in an upstairs bedroom although no drugs were found in the same room. The prosecution offered no evidence that the defendant had knowledge of the presence of the gun.
  • The defendant received the minimum mandatory sentence for being in close proximity to the weapon when he was arrested. The Superior Court affirmed.
  • The Supreme Court remanded the case, finding that the prosecution must establish the defendant’s knowing control over the gun in order for the minimum to apply.
  • The Supreme Court determined that the fact a weapon was found in “close proximity” to illicit substances could be used to show a defendant’s knowing control over it but that “close proximity” should not be construed broadly.

As many drug crimes also involve the presence of weapons, this case is likely to have a broad impact. A Pennsylvania criminal defense attorney can explain the nuanced nature of using the Commonwealth v. Hanson decision when constructing a defense for a similar charge.

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