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Case asks if mandatory minimums have exceptions, constitutionality

Jule Pattison-Gordon

A new court case could decide if judges may consider context when deciding punishment for offenses with mandatory minimum sentences.

Next Tuesday, the commonwealth appeals a 2015 ruling, in which a judge reduced a drug possession with intent to distribute sentence to below the level prescribed by mandatory minimum sentencing laws. Based on the low-level of the offense and the severe health problems of the convict, Superior Court Judge Shannon Frison passed a sentence that was lower by a year — a move the commonwealth challenges as unlawful. According to American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, however, a 1996 piece of legislation provides legal basis for the reduction. Appellee attorneys — advocating for the reduced sentence to be upheld — charge that without such “safety valves” to allow for exceptions, mandatory minimum sentencing drug laws are unconstitutional.

The case, Commonwealth v. Laltaprasad, will be heard by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. ACLU attorneys Adriana Lafaille and Matthew Segal, as well as Keith Nicholson and retired federal judge Nancy Gertner, will represent Laltaprasad. Thomas Clifton Maxim of the Middlesex county district attorney’s office will represent the commonwealth.

The case brings to surface questions about how “mandatory” mandatory minimums really are, how much judicial discretion judges should have and the impact of such laws on public safety and justice.

Considering context

In Commonwealth v. Laltaprasad, the commonwealth contests an earlier ruling.

In July 2015, Imran Laltaprasad, 31, was convicted on charges of possession with intent to distribute heroin and cocaine. He was arrested in Somerville in 2013, and, according to the state’s mandatory minimum sentencing laws, a judge would be required to sentence him to at least three and a half years in state prison. However, when Judge Frison issued Laltaprasad’s sentence, she said she took into account several details: the quantity of drugs was small — “[it] would amount to less than a five-gram packet of sugar,” according to Adriana Lafaille an attorney on the case — and Laltaprasad has a severe medical condition.

When officers apprehended Laltaprasad at the scene, he had a prosthetic leg and a colostomy bag. These were visible evidence of the life-threatening injuries and years of surgery he endured after being a shooting victim in 2010. Laltaprasad also asked the court to consider that his assailants — who shot him at least seven times at close range, according to a court briefing — only received sentences of two years. Judge Frison sentenced him two and a half years. He is currently serving time.

Safety valve dispute

Lafaille said that, in 1996, the state legislature codified a “safety valve” measure allowing justices to consider the context and specific details of a crime and, in appropriate situations, depart from mandatory minimum sentence requirement. She was not aware of a time before Laltaprasad’s case when the safety valve had been invoked but said that does not prevent it being used now.

“Whether it’s been used or not in the past 20 years, it is a part of our law that has a plain meaning, and that meaning is that judges can depart [from mandatory minimum sentences],” she said. “It is a law that’s on the books and there’s no reason that it shouldn’t apply to this case.”

The commonwealth, however, argues that mandatory minimums are just that: mandatory. In all cases. Meaning, Laltaprasad’s sentence reduction was not lawful.

“Courts are bound by mandatory minimums,” states the commonwealth’s court briefing. “Separation of powers principles precludes a sentencing judge from disregarding the legislature’s directive [the mandatory minimum sentence].”

According to the commonwealth’s court briefing, the safety valve is part of a set of sentencing guidelines that were never enacted into law, meaning they cannot be used. According to Laltaprasad’s attorneys’ briefing, the safety valve is just one part of a law that also proposed sentencing guidelines, and that the safety valve’s validity is not dependent on the enactment of the guidelines. The commonwealth’s attorney cites a 1995 case ruling, Commonwealth v. Russo, while Laltaprasad’s attorneys argue in their briefing that the cases are significantly different.

A representative of the Middlesex DA’s office said it could not comment on the case because it currently is being appealed.

Disproportionate impact

Beyond seeking to defend the view that the safety valve is a valid option, defense attorneys and supporters argue without such a provision, mandatory minimums are unconstitutional.

“Time has proven that mandatory minimum drug laws create serious constitutional problems,” said Benjamin Keehn, CPCS appellate co-counsel, in a press release. “They strip judges of the ability to fairly consider mitigating circumstances unique to the offender, resulting in some sentences that are ‘cruel or unusual.’ And they are enforced at an intolerably disproportionate rate against people of color, like Mr. Laltaprasad, in violation of equal protection principles.”

While people of color comprise 20 percent of Massachusetts’s population and approximately 22 percent of those convicted on drug offenses, they make up about 75 percent of those given mandatory minimum sentences, according to the ACLU of MA.

“Without enforcement of the safety valve[,] mandatory minimum sentencing in Massachusetts has proved to be racially discriminatory, disproportionate, and therefore unconstitutional,” states an ACLU of MA press release.

Need for mandatory minimums?

Opponents of mandatory minimum sentences argue that they cause minor offenders to be locked up, resulting in overcrowded prisons and hefty incarceration costs — keeping a person in state prison costs approximately $47,000 a year according to the nonprofit Families Against Mandatory Minimums — while failing to reduce recidivism or crime rates.

“There is no evidence that such severe and inflexible sentences have made any measurable impact on crime rates, public safety, recidivism or rehabilitation and reentry of prisoners,” states the amicus curiae brief filed by the Constitution Project, the Drug Policy Alliance and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

Supporters of the law include Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley, who said at a June hearing on mandatory minimums that he credits them with reducing crime rates. Conley wrote in a March 2015 Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly op-ed that prosecutors are better equipped than judges to discern whether there are mitigating circumstances that mean imprisonment is not warranted.

“Since mandatory minimum laws were first adopted in the early ’90s, police and prosecutors have staked out this same ground, steering low-level, non-violent offenders away from jail and leveraging tougher sentences against the most dangerous offenders,” he wrote.

Instead of sending a defendant to trial, the prosecutor can in some cases opt for what is known as “pretrial diversion.” Under this, they require the defendant to meet certain conditions — for instance, counseling, probation or community service — and upon its completion, charges are dismissed.

Conley said that most of the drug offenders incarcerated in his district are violent and have long records.

Legislative action

Last year, state legislators introduced two bills that would eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug charges: the Justice Reinvestment Act, filed by Rep. Mary Keefe and Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz, and An Act Eliminating Mandatory Minimum Sentences Related to Drug Offenses, filed by Rep. Ben Swan and Sen. Cynthia Creem.

Hearings on the two bills were held in June and September 2015; they currently are with the Committee on the Judiciary. An extension was granted allowing them to remain in committee until June 2016, pending a review of Massachusetts’ criminal justice system.

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