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Supreme Court upholds life sentence

A Criminal Lawyer said that, defendant was indicted and convicted after trial of the sale of two ounces, 33 grains of cocaine possession (a class A-I felony) to an undercover police officer on August 31, 1988. The trial testimony established that, in a known drug location, defendant 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. 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. A rep said that, the trial court, however, determined that in defendant’s case, imposing even the minimum mandatory sentence of 15 years to life would constitute cruel and unusual punishment. The court, therefore, imposed an indeterminate sentence of eight years to life imprisonment. A divided Appellate Division, the dissenters voting 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. A Justice of the Appellate Division granted the People’s application for leave to appeal.

The issue in this case is whether the court erred in imposing indeterminate sentence of eight years to life imprisonment to the defendant.

The Court said that, in one case, the Court in an opinion by Chief Judge, albeit not without doubts expressed regarding the wisdom of the severity of the sentencing scheme for drug crime offenses enacted in 1973, upheld the facial and as applied validity of the mandatory maximum life imprisonment sentence and various mandatory minimum prison sentences in that legislation as against challenges under the cruel and unusual punishment prohibitions of the State and Federal Constitutions. In the said case, this Court 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”. A majority of the Justices of the Supreme Court reaffirmed the same principle, that gross disproportionality of a sentence of imprisonment violates the Eighth Amendment’s Cruel and Unusual Punishments Clause.

In assessing the proportionality of the mandatory sentences, our analysis focused on 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 this State as well as with punishments for the same or similar drug crimes in other jurisdictions; and (2) “the character of the offender and the gravity of the threat he or she poses to society”.

Turning in our constitutional analysis to the character of the eight defendants whose sentences were reviewed, the Court recognized that, although not all of the defendants were “hardened” criminals, each was convicted of at least “street” sales or possession of large amounts of narcotics and none was what might be described as merely an “accidental” offender; therefore, we concluded that each could reasonably be considered a serious threat to society meriting severe punishment. Accordingly, in the said case, we found none of the sentences was grossly disproportionate to the crime committed, and concluded that the mandatory imprisonment provisions for drug crimes withstood both the facial and as applied challenges to their constitutionality. We nonetheless cautioned that, in the future, the mandatory drug sentencing laws might present “some rare case on its particular facts where it could be found that the statutes have been unconstitutionally applied”.

We last measured mandatory sentences for drug selling and possession against the constitutional proscriptions of cruel and unusual punishments in one case, the defendant was convicted of first degree criminal sale and first degree criminal possession of a controlled substance, in connection with the sale of just under four ounces of cocaine by her boyfriend, a narcotics dealer, to an undercover officer. Defendant’s involvement in the transaction was in procuring the drugs, apparently without personal profit, at her boyfriend’s behest (the presentence report stated that the offense was “out of character” for her). She rejected an offer of a one-to-three-year sentence in exchange for a plea to a lesser offense. Her conviction after trial resulted in the imposition of the minimum mandatory sentence, 15 years to life imprisonment, while her boyfriend, the principal actor in the transaction, received a sentence of lifetime probation for subsequently cooperating with the authorities. We again rejected the defendant’s cruel and unusual punishment claim.

Considered in light of the analysis developed in our own and Supreme Court precedents, we must conclude that the constitutional prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishments were not transgressed on the record and facts of this case. Manifestly, the Legislature may constitutionally define criminal law punishments without giving the courts any sentencing discretion. Even the most severe mandatory sentences may be fixed for sale or even possession of quantities of cocaine possesion so large as to support the inference that they were held for purposes of sale, because of the pernicious effect of drug crime trafficking on society. Thus, the majority of the Supreme Court upheld a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment without parole for possession of over 650 grams of cocaine. Indeed, the most salient factor cited by the dissenting Justices in voting to overturn the mandated sentence was the absence of any possibility of parole for the lifetime of the offender, a result the dissenters found only permissible if the conduct was “so atrocious that society’s interest in deterrence and retribution wholly outweighs” all other penological considerations of individualized treatment in every case. By contrast, the sentence mandated here would authorize parole after service of the minimum term of imprisonment.

Considering the first element of the cruel and unusual punishments analysis, time has not eroded this Court’s conclusion that the selling of narcotic drugs represents a grave offense of the first magnitude. Neither has it altered our conclusion on the second element, that, in comparison to the sanctions for other crimes under our Penal Law and for the same or similar drug offenses in other jurisdictions, the mandatory sentences for drug offenses are “relatively severe, but not irrationally so, given the epidemic dimensions of the problem”.

To complete our analysis to determine whether defendant established the gross disproportionality of her punishment, we examine the extent of her culpability in this cocaine sale and the threat she poses to society. The undisputed evidence in this regard is not overly favorable to defendant. The undercover officer testified at the trial without contradiction that defendant made a direct sale to him, filling his order for 200 vials of cocaine for a price of $2,000 and then knowledgeably haggled with him over the amount of the customary bonus of additional vials, insisting on giving him only 14 over his claim of entitlement to 20 extra vials, but promising to “take care of” him personally “the next time” he came. Her conduct hardly bore the earmark of an “accidental” offender. As the Trial Judge noted at sentencing, defendant “understood fully well what she was involved in”. It is noteworthy in this respect that the Chief Judge expressly held that “none of the present cases involve what are often called ‘accidental’ offenders because each of the eight defendants was convicted of at least ‘street’ sales of heroin or cocaine, or possession of a large amount of narcotics”. Undeniably here, the sale of 214 vials of cocaine for $2,000 was, at the very least, at one higher level of culpability (and risk to society) than the street sales.

Moreover, we find no record support in the trial transcript or the presentence report of even a claim by defendant, much less evidence, that defendant’s criminal law involvement was due to the domination of or coercion by her uncle, the principal in the drug operation in which defendant’s sale took place. Indeed, it was the conclusion of the probation officer who performed the presentence investigation that defendant’s involvement in the offense was motivated by a desire “to obtain personal profit”. That conclusion was derived in part from the officer’s interview with defendant, which was a good “vantage point to draw inferences, characterizations and interpretations from the record”, particularly since defendant did not testify at the trial.

Nor does the punishment her uncle received establish gross disproportionality. He was indicted, inter alia, for five criminal sales of a controlled substance in the first degree, and pleaded guilty to one such sale in a plea bargain under which he was sentenced to 15 years to life imprisonment. Although defendant’s presentence report discloses mitigating factors in her family history, they do not demonstrate such an exceptional level of childhood deprivation that would significantly excuse her behavior. Defendant informed the probation officer who conducted the presentence investigation that “she received adequate supervision and that the quality of the home was decent” during most of her formative years when she was raised by a grandmother in Jamaica, British West Indies.

All of the foregoing factors militate against finding that defendant is the rare case we envisaged that, on its particular facts, would present an exception to the general facial constitutionality of the Penal Law’s mandatory sentencing provisions for drug-related offenses. Indeed, based on our assessment of the gravity of the offense she committed and her personal culpability, we could only find defendant’s mandated sentence cruel and unusual punishment by concluding that the constitutional prohibitions prevented mandatory imprisonment for all offenders of defendant’s age. Yet the Legislature has consciously extended the A-I felony mandatory minimums to youths in defendant’s age category. Thus, the Legislature could rationally determine that teenage drug dealers pose a serious threat to society. Clearly, defendant has not met her burden of showing any objective basis for us to conclude that contemporary standards of decency prevent imposing a sentence of 15 years to life imprisonment upon an older adolescent for a direct volitional sale of more than two ounces of cocaine for $2,000.

Before concluding this opinion, it is appropriate to address the principal arguments of the dissent urging affirmance. The dissent takes us to task for failing to set forth cruel and unusual punishments criteria for the guidance of sentencing and intermediate appellate courts, and for “overturning the opposite views of both prior courts, effectively render[ing] a first instance judgment that an Eighth Amendment transgression and the Broadie rare case exception are not present.”

In reviewing the as applied constitutionality of the sentencing statute in this case, we considered the gravity of defendant’s drug crime, that is, the harm it causes society and its comparative seriousness in light of the punishments for other State crimes and for the same offense in other jurisdictions, as well as in comparison to the punishment of the other charged participant. We also reviewed defendant’s personal history and her role in the commission of this criminal offense, and found no strongly mitigating factors, other than her youth, which we determined was alone insufficient to establish gross disproportionality for constitutional purposes.

Accordingly, the court held that the order of the Appellate Division should be reversed, and the matter remitted to Supreme Court, New York County, for resentencing in accordance with this opinion.

If you are involved in a similar case, you should seek the legal opinion of a New York Drug Attorney and New York Criminal Attorney in order to properly defend your case. Call us at Stephen Bilkis and Associates for free consultation.

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