A 33-year old man was indicted by a jury and charged with marijuana possession. Court records showed that the defendant was a second felony offender but not a violent offender. During the course of plea negotiations, the defendant was offered by the State a plea to a B felony in satisfaction of the indictment with a minimum sentence of four and a half years to nine years in state prison. Prior to defendant’s plea, the New York State Legislature passed the Drug Law Reform Act, which was signed into law in 2004.
The People took the plea with a minimum sentence but the sole issue in contention is, what is the minimum state prison sentence now allowed by law given the passage of the new law.
The defense attorney argued that the newly enacted DLRA should be applied retroactively and authorized not only a plea to a B felony reduction from an A-I felony but also the appropriate sentence should be a three and a half year determinate prison term with postrelease supervision set by the court at a determinate time of the minimum of one and a half years to a maximum of three years.
According to the court, the new DLRA was the response of the New York State Legislature to a long-time call to amend the so-called Rockefeller drug laws which some have argued were outdated and draconian.
The new criminal laws applicable to this case provide, in substance, for allowing a plea to a B felony drug offense from an A-I or A-II drug offense. The New Penal Law, which provides guidelines for sentencing of drug offenders, set sentence for a second felony drug offender (nonviolent) convicted of a B felony at a determinate term from a minimum of three and a half years to a maximum of 12 years and postrelease supervision of a determinate term of a minimum of one and a half years to a maximum of 3 years.
There is no question that the crimes that the defendant is charged in this case were committed prior to the effective date of the relevant criminal law provisions. The court did not agree with the defense’s argument that the relevant law should be applied retroactively. The court explained that the general rule is that non-procedural statutes are not to be applied retroactively absent a plainly manifested legislative intent to that effect. An exception is when the Legislature passes an ameliorative amendment that reduces the punishment for a particular crime.
Accordingly, the court found that the sentencing statute is not retroactive to crimes committed prior to the effective date of the said statute and that it is not the province of the trial judiciary to change the clear and unambiguous language of duly enacted law unless its application would effect an unconstitutional, illegal or harmful act.
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