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SJC to Hear Argument on Trial Court’s Discretion to Impose Sentence Below Minimum Mandatory

gavel-1238036In an upcoming case, Commonwealth v. Laltaprasad, the Supreme Judicial Court will hear oral argument on the question of whether a trial court judge has discretion to impose a sentence below the mandatory minimums prescribed by G. L. c. 94C, §§ 32(b) and 32A(d), pursuant to G. L. c. 211E, § 3(e).  G. L. c. 94C, §§ 32(b) and 32A(d) each set forth a three and a half-year mandatory minimum sentence for second and subsequent offenses of distributing or possessing with intent to distribute class A and class B drugs. G. L. c. 211E, § 3(e) states that except for murder, a “sentencing judge may . . . impose a sentence below any mandatory minimum term prescribed by statute . . . based on a finding that there exists one or more mitigating circumstances that should result in a sentence . . . below any applicable mandatory minimum term.”

In Mr. Laltaprasad’s case, the trial court judge found such mitigating circumstances – the judge specifically noted the small quantity of drugs involved and Mr. Laltaprasad’s serious medical condition – and found that these circumstances justified a departure below the mandatory minimums. The judge then imposed a sentence of 2 ½ years to the house of correction, citing to G. L. c. 211E, § 3(e) as her authority to do so. The Commonwealth filed a petition for the Supreme Judicial Court to review the trial court judge’s decision and challenging the legality of the sentence.

In his response to the Commonwealth’s petition, Laltaprasad’s attorneys argue that the plain language of G. L. c. 211E, § 3(e) clearly gives judges authority to impose a below-minimum sentence. Alternatively, Laltaprasad argues that even if the statute is deemed to be ambiguous, consideration of the legislative intent and application of both the rule of lenity (interpreting an ambiguous criminal statute in favor of the defendant) and the doctrine of constitutional avoidance (construing a statute to avoid constitutional problems arising from an alternative construction) should lead to that same interpretation.

The Middlesex District Attorney’s office argues that pursuant to G.L. c. 211E, § 3(a)(1), as interpreted by the SJC in a case decided twenty-two years ago, the authority to impose a sentence below a mandatory minimum does not go into effect until the Legislature enacts into law the sentencing guidelines recommended by the Sentencing Commission. Because those guidelines have not been enacted, the Middlesex DA argues, judges still lack authority to impose a below-mandatory minimum sentence.     

An amicus brief – a brief filed with the court by someone who is not a party to the case, but who has a strong interest in the outcome of that case – was filed by the public defender’s office, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, and the law firm of Foley Hoag and signed by 41 different organizations, was also filed. The amicus brief focuses on three serious constitutional problems that mandatory minimum drug laws have created.  First, the brief argues that the mandatory minimum sentences shift a core judicial function – the power to sentence – from judges to prosecutors, in violation of the separation of powers doctrine set forth in art. 30 of the Declaration of Rights.  Second, the brief argues that that the mandatory minimum sentences strip judges of the ability to fashion a sentence that fairly accounts for an offender’s unique characteristics, including the substance use disorder that afflicts so many drug offenders, resulting in some sentences that are “cruel or unusual” in contravention of art. 26 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights.  Third, the mandatory minimum sentences are enforced at an intolerably disproportionate rate against people of color, like Mr. Laltaprasad, as proven by the Massachusetts Sentencing Commission’s statistics, giving rise to a reasonable inference of discrimination in violation of equal protection rights.  The amicus brief argues that a trial court judge must possess authority to impose a below-minimum sentence in appropriate cases in order to avoid these constitutional violations. The case is presently scheduled to be argued on April 5, 2016.

The outcome of this case will have a significant impact on cases in which the defendant is charged with a crime that had a mandatory minimum sentence. Further, while the case is pending, attorneys defending individuals charged under statutes that prescribe mandatory minimum penalties should be asking the court to go below the minimum mandatory sentence laid out under the respective statute, making the above referenced arguments in support of a judge’s authority to impose a below-minimum sentence.

If you or a loved one is charged with a crime that carries a minimum mandatory sentence, you will need a skilled and experienced attorney to present all evidence of any mitigating circumstances, gather statistical data regarding the disparate enforcements of these mandatory minimums against people of color, determine the frequency with which the Commonwealth uses mandatory minimums to dictate sentences, and persuasively argue to the court that it should depart from the minimum mandatory sentence laid out under the respective statute. Attorney Daniel Cappetta is well versed in the law and has been making cogent and successful arguments on behalf of his clients for many years. Call him today for a free consultation.