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SJC ISsues Decision on Judge’s Ability to Depart from Mandatory Minimum Sentencing

jail-1211438In Commonwealth v. Laltaprasad, the SJC ruled that G. L. c. 211E, §3(e), does not “authorize[] a sentencing judge to depart from the mandatory minimum terms specified by statute for subsequent drug offenses,” where “the Legislature has not yet enacted into law sentencing guidelines recommended by the Massachusetts Sentencing Commission.”

The background was as follows. After a jury convicted the defendant of possession with intent to distribute heroin and cocaine, “[t]he defendant pleaded guilty to the subsequent offense portion of each of these charges.” At sentencing, the “judge stated that she would depart downward from the mandatory minimum sentence provisions of the two subsequent offense statutes [G.L. c.94C, §32(b) and G.L. c.94C §32A(d)], each of which requires a minimum term of three and one-half years in State prison, and would impose instead a sentence of two and one-half years in a house of correction.” The Commonwealth moved unsuccessfully for reconsideration and then sought relief pursuant to G.L. c.211, §3. “The single justice reserved and reported the case to the full [SJC] without decision.”

At issue in this case was the proper interpretation of c.211E, §3(e), … part of a chapter of the General Laws entitled ‘Massachusetts Sentencing Commission’ that was added by the Legislature in 1996…. Section 3 of c.211E focuses specifically on the responsibility of the commission to recommend sentencing guidelines…. Although the sentence ranges to be set by the guidelines are to be presumptive in most circumstances, §3(e) provides: ‘Except for the crimes set forth in [G.L. c.265, §1, (murder)], the sentencing judge may depart from the range established by the sentencing guidelines and impose a sentence below any mandatory minimum term prescribed by statute if the judge sets forth in writing reasons for departing from that range on a sentencing statement … based on a finding that there exists one or more mitigating circumstances that should result in a sentence different from the one otherwise prescribed by the guidelines and below any applicable mandatory minimum term.’” In its appeal from the judge’s departure from the mandatory minimum sentence in this case, “[t]he Commonwealth argue[d] that the judge lacked authority to reach this result because the mandatory minimum sentence departure authorization in §3(e) only becomes operative when the [Massachusetts Sentencing] [C]ommission’s recommended sentencing guidelines are ‘enacted into law’ by legislative vote, as mandated by c.211E, §3(a)(1), and the Legislature has not done so to date.”

Stating that it was “constrained to agree with the Commonwealth,” the SJC ordered the vacating of the defendant’s sentence because it was “not in accord with the statutes defining the offenses of which the defendant was convicted.” The Court added that “[i]t may be appropriate for the Legislature to consider anew, guided by the work of the [sentencing] commission, the issue of authorizing sentencing judges to depart from mandatory minimum sentences in relation to certain types of drug offenses in appropriate circumstances.” In support of that idea, the Court noted the existence of “data concerning convictions for drug offenses in Massachusetts [which] raise a serious concern about the disparate impact of mandatory minimum sentences on defendants who are part of racial or ethnic minority groups.” Specifically, the Court cited data in a document entitled “Massachusetts Sentencing Commission, Survey of Sentencing Practices, FY 2013,” indicating that “of [drug] distribution offenses with mandatory minimum sentences, 25.3 per cent of the defendants convicted were white, and 74.7 per cent were racial or ethnic minorities.” The Court asserted that “in the twenty years since c.211E, §3(e), was enacted, the Federal government and at least twenty-three States have enacted ‘safety valve’ statutes authorizing judges to depart from mandatory minimum sentences in certain circumstances at least for drug offenses, and in some instances, more generally.”

The type of sentencing options available in Massachusetts and what factors the court may consider in imposing a sentence are a critical part of each criminal case. If you or a loved one is facing the possibility of a sentence, including charges that carry minimum mandatory times, you will need a defense attorney who is aware of any changes in Massachusetts sentencing law and who can help you use any changes to your advantage. Attorney Daniel Cappetta can explain the current state of the law, explain any potential changes to the law, and assess how it applies to your case. Call today for a free consultation.