The state Superior Court is putting an SCI inmate back on track for prosecution on a felony drug possession charge, after overturning a Huntingdon County judge’s decision to dismiss the case.
When he threw out charges against Sammy Hill earlier this year, Huntingdon County President Judge George Zanic argued that such cases are a misuse of the county’s resources; the higher court countered, by calling the decision an abuse of discretion.
In his Feb. 25 order, Zanic wrote that he based his decision in the Hill matter “upon no statute, Pennsylvania rule of court or common law theory, other than the inherent power of the court to manage its docket and avoid absurd results.”
He continued that the Hill case “is a perfect example of the kind of misuse of the courts and failure to act by the General Assembly that has become endemic over several decades.”
Zanic said Huntingdon County’s docket has “become overburdened by drug possession cases” that originate within the walls of SCI Huntingdon and SCI Smithfield.
“To say this has become a Sisyphean endeavor is putting it lightly, Zanic wrote. “Prosecuting (Hill) on these facts is a colossal waste of the already strained resources of these over-stretched agencies.”
Moving forward, Zanic wrote that he intends to “analyze these cases through a common-sense lens.”
Hill, 52, was charged with one felony and two misdemeanors for having a small amount of synthetic marijuana in his cell at SCI Smithfield. The incident, which was reported to state police at Huntingdon, occurred Dec. 17, 2018.
Hill is serving a life sentence for first degree murder conviction out of Philadelphia County, relative to a case dating back to to the early 1990s.
If convicted on the new drug-related charges, Hill faces an additional 12 years in prison.
“What nobody is apparently doing is asking the most basic of questions: ‘Why?’ Is it really worth all this time and cost to taxpayers to tell a life inmate that once he dies, he will have to serve an additional 12 years?” Zanic wrote in his order.
Zanic suggests, instead, that the state’s General Assembly provide “a new statutory scheme that addresses the realities of modern prison life” and proposes a series of summary offenses for conduct that occurs within the prison walls. He notes that summary offenses do not entitle a defendant to counsel or trial by jury and the punishments emphasize funs over incarceration.
In the Superior Court opinion, penned by President Judge Emeritus Correale F. Stevens, the court states that, while understanding the local court’s frustrations with the process relative to cases like Hill’s, “We cannot allow a trial court to bypass the constitutional processes in our system of government.”
“As such, we respectfully hold that the trial court abused its discretion in dismissing the charges again (Hill) and violated the separation of powers doctrine by exceeding the scope of its own authority under the Constitution of the Commonwealth,” the court states.
The Superior Court opinion effectively puts Hill back on the Huntingdon County court docket.
Hill’s defense attorney Christopher Wencker says he agrees with Zanic’s assessment concerning the cost, in time and resources, attached to such cases.
“I believe that the judge’s ruling was correct, in that it is a waste of taxpayer money and judicial resources to prosecute a person when there will be no appreciable punishment as a result,” Wencker said.
Wencker said there is no apparent likelihood that Hill’s life sentence will not be served in full.
“I understand that it is important to prosecute even life inmates for serious crimes, but in cases like this it accomplishes nothing — Mr. Hill was already administratively punished by the prison for his conduct, and nobody suggests that the prison has no authority to do so,” Wencker said.
Huntingdon County District Attorney David Smith, whose office filed the appeal with the Superior Court, said he is committed to prosecuting cases like Hill’s, but would welcome a discussion on the existing statute.
As written, the contraband statute — which Hill was charged under — limits the discretion a prosecutor would have in any other case. Regardless of the amount of drugs found on an inmate, he or she is automatically charged with a felony offense, where, outside the prison walls, a similar quantity of a controlled substance could be either a misdemeanor or summary offense.
“It’s an ongoing issue, about what is an appropriate penalty for a long-term or life inmate,” Smith said. “We welcome a discussion. If the legislature wants to look at this and talk to the people who have to deal with this – the DOC, the judges, the attorneys — we welcome that.”
Smith said he credits the Department of Corrections for stepping up its anti-drug efforts in recent years, by making improvements in the way they handle mail, monitor phone calls and conduct searches.
“They’ve invested a lot of time, energy and money in their efforts to keep drugs out of the prisons,” Smith said. “It’s a cat and mouse game, having the technology that keeps up with the efforts to bring the drugs in.”
Smith said the only way to adjust the way such cases move through the court is through the legislature.
“There has to be some sort of punishment,” he said.
Judge Zanic said he has brought up the issue with both state Sen. Judy Ward and state House Rep. Rich Irvin.
“It has been an issue here since I was a defense attorney,” Zanic said.
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