A 25-year old mother was indicted and convicted of a drug crime after trial of the sale of cocaine, which is considered a class A-I felony to an undercover police officer. According to sources, in a location known for rampant cocaine possession, the mother sold the undercover officer 214 vials of cocaine for $2,000 and promised to “take care of” him “the next time” he came. At the time of the sale she was 17 years old.
Under criminal laws, conviction of a class A-I felony carries a mandatory indeterminate prison sentence, the minimum of which is not less than 15 years and not more than 25 years, the maximum of which is life imprisonment. The trial court, however, determined that in this drug case, imposing even the minimum mandatory sentence of 15 years to life would constitute cruel and unusual punishment. Accordingly, the trial court imposed an indeterminate sentence of eight years to life imprisonment. A divided appellate court affirmed. The judges who the dissented voted to reverse the sentence and remand the case to Supreme Court for resentencing in compliance with the Penal Law’s mandatory sentencing provisions for an A-I felony conviction. The State appealed.
On further appeal, the court pointed out that courts have upheld the facial and validity of the mandatory maximum life imprisonment sentence and various mandatory minimum prison sentences as against challenges under the cruel and unusual punishment prohibitions of the State and Federal Constitutions. The court, in many cases, adopted the principle that a sentence may constitute cruel and unusual punishment by being ” ‘cruelly’ excessive, that is, grossly disproportionate to the crime for which it is exacted.”
In assessing the proportionality of the mandatory sentences, the courts take into consideration the following factors: (1) the gravity of the offense, primarily in terms of the harm it causes society, but also in comparison with punishments imposed for other crimes in the State of New York as well as with punishments for the same or similar crimes in other jurisdictions; and (2) the character of the offender and the gravity of the threat he or she poses to society.
In this case, the court held that the constitutional prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishments were not transgressed on the record and facts of the case.
The court also examined the extent of the mother’s culpability and the threat she poses to society and determined that the accused cannot be considered an “accidental” offender of marijuana posession. The trial court noted that the accused understood well what she was involved in.” Here, the sale of 214 vials of cocaine for $2,000 was, at the very least, at a high level of culpability and risk to society. The court further noted that the accused has elected to personally sell a requested significant quantity of drugs at the wholesale level.
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