Com. v. Wright

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
Writing for the CourtBefore NIX; NIX; LARSEN; LARSEN
Citation494 A.2d 354,508 Pa. 25
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee, v. Sandra L. WRIGHT, Appellant. COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellant, v. Dynel McMILLAN, Appellee. COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellant, v. Lorna PETERSON, Appellee. COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellant, v. James J. DENNISON, Appellee. COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellant, v. Harold L. SMALLS, Appellee.
Decision Date10 June 1985

Page 354

494 A.2d 354
508 Pa. 25
COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellee,
v.
Sandra L. WRIGHT, Appellant.
COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellant,
v.
Dynel McMILLAN, Appellee.
COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellant,
v.
Lorna PETERSON, Appellee.
COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellant,
v.
James J. DENNISON, Appellee.
COMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Appellant,
v.
Harold L. SMALLS, Appellee.
Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.
Argued Dec. 6, 1984.
Decided June 10, 1985.

Page 355

[508 Pa. 28] Eric B. Henson, Deputy Dist. Atty., Steven J. Cooperstein, Philadelphia, for appellant in all cases, except No. 4 E.D. Appeal Docket 1984.

Robert D. Bacher, Lancaster, for appellant in No. 4 E.D. Appeal Docket 1984.

John W. Packel, Chief, Appeals Div., Leonard Sosnov, Philadelphia, for appellee in No. 28 E.D. Appeal Docket 1984 and for amicus in No. 106 E.D. Appeal Docket 1984.

Gerald A. Stein, Philadelphia, for appellee in No. 62 E.D. Appeal Docket 1984.

Mary McNeill Zell, Philadelphia, for appellee in No. 101 E.D. Appeal Docket 1984.

Joseph W. Carroll, III, Deputy Dist. Atty., Stuart Suss, Asst. Dist. Atty., William A. Behe, Deputy Atty. Gen., Robert A. Graci, Media, for appellee in No. 4 E.D. Appeal Docket 1984.

Robert M. Lipshutz, Philadelphia, for appellee in No. 106 E.D. Appeal Docket 1984.

Before NIX, C.J., and LARSEN, FLAHERTY, McDERMOTT, HUTCHINSON, ZAPPALA and PAPADAKOS, JJ.

OPINION

NIX, Chief Justice.

The issue in these appeals is the constitutionality of section 9712 of the Mandatory Minimum Sentencing Act, 42 Pa.C.S. § 9712, which requires the imposition of a minimum sentence of five years' total confinement upon persons found to have been in visible possession of a firearm during the commission of certain felonies. Each of the defendants was convicted of one of the section's enumerated offenses, and in each case the Commonwealth sought to proceed under the section. In four of these cases the trial court, holding the section unconstitutional, declined to apply it. 1 [508 Pa. 29] In

Page 356

the remaining case a constitutional challenge to the statute was rejected and the defendant was sentenced to a five-year term of imprisonment. 2

I.

Section 9712, entitled "Sentences for offenses committed with firearms," provides as follows:

(a) Mandatory sentence.--Any person who is convicted in any court of this Commonwealth of murder of the third degree, voluntary manslaughter, rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, robbery as defined in 18 Pa.C.S. § 3701(a)(1)(i), (ii) or (iii) (relating to robbery), aggravated assault as defined in 18 Pa.C.S. § 2702(a)(1) (relating to aggravated assault) or kidnapping, or who is convicted of attempt to commit any of these crimes, shall, if the person visibly possessed a firearm during the commission of the offense, be sentenced to a minimum sentence of at least five years of total confinement notwithstanding any [508 Pa. 30] other provision of this title or other statute to the contrary.

(b) Proof of sentencing.--Provisions of this section shall not be an element of the crime and notice thereof to the defendant shall not be required prior to conviction, but reasonable notice of the Commonwealth's intention to proceed under this section shall be provided after conviction and before sentencing. The applicability of this section shall be determined at sentencing. The court shall consider any evidence presented at trial and shall afford the Commonwealth and the defendant an opportunity to present any necessary additional evidence and shall determine, by a preponderance of the evidence, if this section is applicable.

(c) Authority of court in sentencing.--There shall be no authority in any court to impose on an offender to which this section is applicable any lesser sentence than provided for in subsection (a) or to place such offender on probation or to suspend sentence. Nothing in this section shall prevent the sentencing court from imposing a sentence greater than that provided in this section. Sentencing guidelines promulgated by the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing shall not supersede the mandatory sentences provided in this section.

(d) Appeal by Commonwealth.--If a sentencing court refuses to apply this section where applicable, the Commonwealth shall have the right to appellate review of the action of the sentencing court. The appellate court shall vacate the sentence and remand the case to the sentencing court for imposition of a sentence in accordance with this section if it finds that the sentence was imposed in violation of this section.

(e) Definition of firearm.--As used in this section "firearm" means any weapon (including a starter gun) which will or is designed to or may readily be converted to expel a projectile by the action of an explosive or the expansion of gas therein.

42 Pa.C.S. § 9712.

Page 357

[508 Pa. 31] The constitutional challenge to section 9712 centers upon subsection (b)'s provision that the issue of the applicability of the statute, i.e., whether the defendant visibly possessed a firearm during the commission of the offense, is to be determined by a preponderance of the evidence. In the four appeals in which the section was declared constitutionally infirm, the trial court concluded that the preponderance standard violates due process. The rationale for those decisions is that visible possession of a firearm is an element of the crime for which the defendant is being sentenced and thus requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt. If that theory is correct the statute clearly violates due process and we need proceed no further. If, however, we conclude that visible possession of a firearm is not an element of the crime, we must determine whether proof of that fact by a preponderance of the evidence satisfies the Due Process Clause.

A.

We begin by noting that the legislature explicitly provided in section 9712(b) the "[p]rovisions of this section shall not be an element of the crime...." 42 Pa.C.S. § 9712(b). "Under our system of jurisprudence the legislature is charged with the responsibility of defining the elements of crimes." Commonwealth v. Graves, 461 Pa. 118, 126, 334 A.2d 661, 665 (1975). Moreover, as defined in the Crimes Code, an element of an offense is

[s]uch conduct or such attendant circumstances or such a result of conduct as:

(1) is included in the description of the offense;

(2) establishes the required kind of culpability;

(3) negatives an excuse or justification for such conduct;

(4) negatives a defense under the statute of limitation; or

(5) establishes jurisdiction or venue.

18 Pa.C.S. § 103.

[508 Pa. 32] Visible possession of a firearm is neither included in the definitions of the felonies enumerated in section 9712(a) nor does it establish the culpability required under those definitions. See 18 Pa.C.S. §§ 2502(c), 2503, 2702(a)(1), 2901, 3121, 3123, 3701(a)(1)(i)-(iii). Subsections (3), (4) and (5) of the statutory definition of "element of an offense" are clearly inapplicable. Thus, under Pennsylvania law, even in the absence of an explicit statement by the legislature visible possession of a firearm could not be considered an element of the crime of which a defendant subject to section 9712 has been convicted.

B.

It is argued, however, that the section in effect creates a new set of upgraded felonies of which visual possession is a material element. We disagree. Section 9712 does not alter the degree of guilt as to the crimes to which it may be applied. Third degree murder, robbery as defined in 18 Pa.C.S. § 3701(a)(1), kidnapping, rape and involuntary deviate sexual intercourse are felonies of the first degree subjecting the defendant to a maximum of twenty years' imprisonment. Voluntary manslaughter and aggravated assault as defined in 18 Pa.C.S. § 2702(a)(1) are felonies of the second degree carrying a maximum sentence of ten years. Section 9712 neither provides for an increase in these maximum sentences nor authorizes a separate sentence. It merely mandates a minimum sentence of five years, which may be greater or less than the minimum sentence which might otherwise be imposed. 3

Moreover, section 9712 applies only in the event the defendant is convicted of one of the offenses enumerated therein and thus relates solely to the sentencing proceedings. The section in question removes from the sentencing court the discretion to

Page 358

decide whether total confinement is appropriate and whether to set a minimum sentence of less [508 Pa. 33] than five years. Visible possession of a firearm during the commission of the crime is a sentencing factor which, if found, is dispositive of those issues. The legislature has thus foreclosed the possibility of leniency to such gun-users. Thus we conclude that visible possession is not an element of the crimes specified in the section.

We reject the argument that In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358, 90 S.Ct. 1068, 25 L.Ed.2d 368 (1970), and Mullaney v. Wilbur, 421 U.S. 684, 95 S.Ct. 1881, 44 L.Ed.2d 508 (1975), compel a contrary conclusion. In In re Winship, supra, the United States Supreme Court, after discussing the vital role of the reasonable, doubt standard in the American scheme of criminal procedure stated:

Lest there be any doubt about the constitutional stature of the reasonable-doubt standard, we explicitly hold that the Due Process Clause protects the accused against conviction except upon proof beyond a reasonable doubt of every fact necessary to constitute the crime with which he is charged.

Id. at 364, 90 S.Ct. at 1073.

Language in a subsequent decision of that Court, Mullaney v. Wilbur, supra, appeared to indicate that Winship was not limited to the elements of the crime as defined by state law. Id. 421 U.S. at 698, 699 n. 24, 95 S.Ct. at 1889, 1890 n. 24. Mullaney struck down a Maine homicide statute which provided for the single generic offense of felonious homicide with three "punishment categories" based on degree of culpability. Under the...

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117 practice notes
  • Com. v. Aponte
    • United States
    • Pennsylvania Supreme Court
    • August 19, 2004
    ...minimum sentence and cases such as his, where the statute increases the maximum sentence. Appellant points to Commonwealth v. Wright, 508 Pa. 25, 494 A.2d 354 (1985), and Commonwealth v. Allen, 508 Pa. 114, 494 A.2d 1067 (1985), which address the constitutionality of two sections of the Man......
  • Com. v. Bell
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    • United States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
    • December 29, 1986
    ...240 (1962); Commonwealth v. Musto, 348 Pa. 300, 35 A.2d 307 (1944). However, as we made clear in our decision in Commonwealth v. Wright, 508 Pa. 25, 494 A.2d 354 (1985), aff'd. sub nom. McMillan v. Pennsylvania, 477 U.S. 79, 106 S.Ct. 2411, 91 L.Ed.2d 67 (U.S.1986), visible possession of a ......
  • Com. v. Parker White Metal Co.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
    • October 9, 1986
    ...of prosecutor's discretion as to whether to charge first degree murder and whether to seek death penalty); Commonwealth v. Wright, 508 Pa. 25, 494 A.2d 354, 361-62 (1985) aff'd sub nom 477 U.S. 79, 106 S.Ct. 2411, 91 L.Ed.2d 67 (1986) (defendant has no right to particular sentence within th......
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    • Superior Court of Pennsylvania
    • May 22, 2000
    ...citizens are practically on their own in defending themselves against criminal predators. Our Supreme Court in Commonwealth versus Wright, 508 Pa. 25, [494 A.2d 354,] summed up this concern when it said: Society cannot tolerate the tyranny of armed There are so many aggravating circumstance......
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117 cases
  • State v. Gantt
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court (New Jersey)
    • January 30, 1986
    ...some trepidation as I see gathering on the horizon portentous issues that may yet break upon us. E.g. Commonwealth v. Wright, ---Pa. ---, 494 A.2d 354, cert. granted sub nom. McMillan v. Pennsylvania, 474 U.S. ----, 106 S.Ct. 58, 88 L.Ed.2d 47 (1985). Accordingly, I concur in the judgment o......
  • Com. v. Aponte
    • United States
    • Pennsylvania Supreme Court
    • August 19, 2004
    ...minimum sentence and cases such as his, where the statute increases the maximum sentence. Appellant points to Commonwealth v. Wright, 508 Pa. 25, 494 A.2d 354 (1985), and Commonwealth v. Allen, 508 Pa. 114, 494 A.2d 1067 (1985), which address the constitutionality of two sections of the Man......
  • Com. v. Bell
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
    • December 29, 1986
    ...240 (1962); Commonwealth v. Musto, 348 Pa. 300, 35 A.2d 307 (1944). However, as we made clear in our decision in Commonwealth v. Wright, 508 Pa. 25, 494 A.2d 354 (1985), aff'd. sub nom. McMillan v. Pennsylvania, 477 U.S. 79, 106 S.Ct. 2411, 91 L.Ed.2d 67 (U.S.1986), visible possession of a ......
  • Com. v. Parker White Metal Co.
    • United States
    • Pennsylvania Supreme Court
    • October 9, 1986
    ...of prosecutor's discretion as to whether to charge first degree murder and whether to seek death penalty); Commonwealth v. Wright, 508 Pa. 25, 494 A.2d 354, 361-62 (1985) aff'd sub nom 477 U.S. 79, 106 S.Ct. 2411, 91 L.Ed.2d 67 (1986) (defendant has no right to particular sentence within th......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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