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Pennsylvania Supreme Court decides how close is “close proximity”

Pennsylvania like most states has a goal to reduce drug related gun violence, and the laws add significant time to drug sentences when a gun is involved. However, there have been different interpretations of how that involvement is measured.

Sorting through a number of incomplete and sometimes incorrect decisions by lower courts, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently decided how close a gun must be to drugs to impose a mandatory minimum sentence in a prosecution for drug possession with intent to deliver.

Drugs admitted to, not gun

In the case of Commonwealth v. Hanson, the defendant pleaded guilty to possessing drugs with intent to deliver after he was arrested for selling drugs to an undercover officer outside a house which he then entered. The next day, officers observed the defendant entering the house repeatedly with a key, and saw no one else go into the house.

A search warrant was executed and the defendant was arrested on the first floor of the house. Drugs were found in various rooms on the second floor, and a gun was found in another second floor room. No drugs or paraphernalia were found in the room with the gun. The defendant was charged with possession of the handgun and objected to that charge since there was no connection between the drugs and the gun, which he did not admit owning or knowing about.

Mandatory minimum sentence imposed

The defendant was slapped with a five year mandatory minimum for constructively possessing the gun along with drugs and paraphernalia seized from the house. The court reasoned that if the gun was in the house and the defendant could have accessed it, he was in close proximity and had control of the firearm.

The definition of “close proximity” in the sentencing law was the issue, and the defendant and the court both gave examples of how close the gun and drugs must be for the five year enhancement to be applied.

Knowledge of gun’s existence required

The defendant argued against a strict proximity view, calling such an interpretation unreasonable. He gave examples of situations where a gun is in close proximity to drugs: an unarmed drug dealer selling to an armed undercover officer, where the drugs would be very close to the officer’s gun, and a drug dealer in a taxi in which the cabbie had a gun in a bag on the front seat for protection.

The defendant claimed to have no knowledge of the gun on the second floor in someone else’s room, and said he had never been on the second floor of the house. The prosecution argued for a definition of “close proximity” as creating a rebuttable presumption of control of the gun.

How close is close enough?

The prosecution reasoned that even though the mandatory minimum law was a criminal statute, it did not require the “close proximity” language to be given its narrowest possible meaning. The biggest problem with the phrase was trying to determine how close is close enough in the legislature’s contemplation in passing the law.

The closer a gun is to drugs, the stronger the association between them, and vice versa, according to the Supreme Court. The lack of any specific evidence of the defendant’s control of the firearm and the lower court’s incorrect application of the mandatory minimum law made the Supreme Court send the case back for resentencing.

Contact a lawyer

The complexity and possible enhancements in sentences for drug crimes makes it imperative that you obtain experienced legal representation immediately to protect your rights and reputation.