WILKES-BARRE — A Luzerne County assistant district attorney dotted her “I’s” and crossed her “T’s” when she sought a higher sentence for convicted heroin dealer Darrin Battle.
A county jury on June 25, 2013, found Battle, 27, guilty of selling heroin packets for cash on Public Square.
Assistant District Attorney Jill Matthews said Battle sold heroin within 1,000 feet of Wilkes-Barre Area’s Coughlin High School and the Luzerne County Community College Corporate Learning Center.
Convicted of selling dope in a school zone, Matthews filed a “Notice to seek mandatory minimum sentence” with the presiding judge, as state law demands.
Two months after the jury trial, Judge Joseph Sklarosky Jr. agreed with Matthews that Battle did indeed sell heroin in a school zone, and promptly sentenced Battle to serve two to five years in state prison on charges of delivery of heroin and possession with intent to deliver heroin.
Then came an unforeseen legal development.
State Superior Court last month vacated Battle’s sentence, citing a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that has had an impact on mandatory minimum sentences.
In Alleyne v. United States, the Supreme Court ruled facts that trigger mandatory minimum sentences must be included in the criminal complaint or indictment and proven to a jury by proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
In Battle’s case, the Wilkes-Barre police officer did include that Battle’s sale of heroin occurred in a drug-free school zone. It was not known if that was presented to the jury during the trial.
Under current state law, Matthews and other assistant district attorneys prosecuting defendants charged with selling drugs in school zones are compelled to show proof at time of sentencing, well after a defendant pleads guilty or is convicted by a jury.
The Supreme Court ruled any offense that triggers mandatory minimum sentencing must be listed in arrest papers or an indictment and be an “element” proven to a jury beyond reasonable doubt.
“The jury issued no finding as to whether Battle committed the offenses of delivery and possession with intent to deliver within 1,000 feet of a school. Pursuant to Alleyne, the trial court erred by deciding this point at sentencing,” the Superior Court ruled.
Battle is not the only convicted drug dealer who was awarded a new sentencing hearing.
Superior Court on Aug. 20 vacated a five- to 10-year state prison sentence for James Newman, whose sentenced was enhanced by the state’s mandatory minimum sentencing law because he was convicted in Montgomery County of a firearm offense and possessing 60 grams of cocaine.
Locally, District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis is appealing a July 11 ruling by Sklarosky that prevented prosecutors from amending the criminal information for Fabian Thomas, 31, of Brooklyn, New York.
Kingston police arrested Thomas after he allegedly sold $200 worth of cocaine on Wright Avenue on Aug. 7, 2013, according to court records.
Prosecutors sought to include Thomas’ sale of cocaine occurred within 1,000 feet of a school.
Thomas’ lawyer, John Sobota, argued against it, saying the alleged cocaine sale and where it occurred was not written in the criminal complaint.
Sklarosky ruled in favor of Sobota, prohibiting prosecutors from introducing at Thomas’ trial that he allegedly sold cocaine in a drug free school zone.