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Court Discusses Classification of Methadone Criminal Conviction after the Amendment of the Penal Law



The defendant was charged and pled guilty to having more than one eighth of an ounce of methadone in his orange juice. The conviction was classified as an E felony then changed to a B misdemeanour. The criminal defendant petitioned to the court to ascertain whether his conviction could be classified as a prior felony conviction according to section 70.06 of the Penal Law.

In 1973 Section 70.06 of the Penal Law defined a prior felony conviction as an offense where a person is sentenced to more than one year of imprisonment in the State of New York or any other jurisdiction. The constitutionality of the provision was challenge as it violated the equal protection clause because it treated an out-of-state conviction as a felony even where it would not be a felony in New York State. This resulted in out-of-state individuals receiving a harsher treatment than a person who committed the same offense in New York. The decision of People v Parker 41 N.Y.2d 21 by the Court of Appeals stated that there was a need to have a relationship between the the seriousness of a crime, by the severity of the sentence and the norms prevailing in the jurisdiction in which a crime was committed by the Legislature to justify a difference in treatment. The section was amended by the Legislature to provide equality as an out-of-state felony conviction was no longer a consideration to determine whether a person had a person had a prior conviction unless the offense is an authorized felony in the state.

The new amendment required that the person’s out of state felony conviction will be only be a felony where the offense it also a felony in New York. There was no rational in treating the defendant more harshly as someone with a similar out of state conviction. The defendant would not have equal protection guaranteed by the constitution. The history of methadone legislation was examined by the court in ascertaining whether it was a felony. In 1973 methadone was classified as a narcotic drug subjecting it to the combined weight stipulation provisions like drugs such as heroin, morphine and cocaine. There was a subsequent amendment which changed the method in which methadone was dispensed from tablet to liquid. This resulted in one dose of methadone in the defendant’s container of orange juice constituted felony; this was in contrast to over 400 doses for heroin, 300 doses for cocaine and 600 doses for LSD being classified as a felony. The case of the People v. Carter, 80 Misc.2d 1081, held that it was illogical that the law treated 30 milligrams of therapeutic methadone added by an employee of a clinic with the same degree of criminality and sanction as the same weight of more potent, illicit narcotics possessed or sold in dosages at least one hundred times as great. As such, there was an outcry as the law relating to methadone conviction was viewed as counter-productive. After the defendant’s case, the law was amended which classified methadone according to a pure weight standard.

It was concluded by the Court that the defendant was not subjected to a felony conviction by reason of his 1974 methadone conviction. Prior conviction on plea of guilty to attempted possession of one-eighth ounce of methadone could not legitimately be used as a prior felony conviction for enhancement purposes where offense, though a class E felony at time of conviction. The offence was reduced to a B misdemeanor and if the court gave it felony status it would be contrary to expressed legislative intent, purpose and rationale and basic principles of justice and fairness.

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