SailorsAllen Law

Retroactivity vs. Amelioration as applied to Kirby

Last week the Supreme Court did my client a solid but the overall impact will be not widespread.   July 26, 2017, the Supreme Court wanted to have their tentacles stretch a little further.   They reviewed a case called Kirby.   Kirby posthumously challenged the drug sentencing laws that changed on August 1, 2016.  This Kirby is still alive.  That was a lame Puckett joke.  But for the purposes of this blog, we are going to double down on that lame joke and keep going.   The Twin’s Centerfielder who often plastered himself against plexiglass was sentenced to 161 months in prison for first-degree possession of methamphetamine.   While he was appealing his case the MN legislature passed the Drug Sentencing Reform Act (DSRA). Amongst other things, the DRSA changed the sentencing guidelines and 3rd overall pick in the 1982 draft asked to be resentenced under the new guidelines. The DSRA reduced the presumptive sentencing range for 5’8”

While he was appealing his case the MN legislature passed the Drug Sentencing Reform Act (DSRA). Amongst other things, the DRSA changed the sentencing guidelines and 3rd overall pick in the 1982 draft asked to be resentenced under the new guidelines. The DSRA reduced the presumptive sentencing range for 5’8” centerfielder’s offense from 138 to 192 months to 110 to 153 months. See Act of May 22, 2016, ch. 160, § 18, 2016 Minn. Laws 576, 590-91; Minn. Sent. Guidelines 4.C (2016).

The court wanted to be very clear that this case was not about retroactivity.   Retroactivity doesn’t mean exercising to Richard Simmon’s “Sweating to the Oldies.”  It means that if a case is important enough they apply the holding of the case to similarly situated defendants even if final judgement had been entered in their case.   So basically everyone who was sentenced under the old guidelines will not get this benefit.

This case is about amelioration. The amelioration doctrine applies to cases that are not yet final when the change in law takes effect. See State v. Coolidge, 282 N.W.2d 511, 514-15 (Minn. 1979).   So the question becomes does the amelioration doctrine (“AD”) apply to the guy who got hit in the face with Victor Martinez.   The MNSC acknowledges that they have never used the AD before.   However, they say that four previous cases have analyzed AD.   In the interest of time, let’s just look at two of those cases.  Since we already cited Coolidge, let’s just stay there. Coolidge is about sodomy.  He was convicted of it and sentenced to ten years in prison.   Before the final judgment was entered the legislature changed the maximum penalty sodomy statute from 10 years to 1.  The court conducted a similar analysis as they are doing now for the guy McDonald’s offered a meal named after him called a “Puck Pack.”  The court concluded, “in light of the common law and the weight of greater logic,  the defendant should have been sentenced under the present law, which provides a maximum prison term of 1 year.” Id.

In contrast to Coolidge, they looked at Edstrom v. State, 326 N.W.2d 10 (Minn. 1982).  Edstrom was another case involving criminal sexual but the law lowered the max penalty for the sentence from 30 years to 20.   There was a clause in that case that said, “crimes committed prior to the effective date of this act are not affected by its provisions.” Act of June 5, 1975, ch. 374, § 12, 1975 Minn. Laws at 1251.  Edstrom’s act occurred in March so it did not impact him.  So when looking at the 2-time World Series Champion’s case in contrast with the other two cases, the court said the could resentence Shane Mack’s buddy under the new guidelines if:

(1) the Legislature made no statement that clearly establishes the Legislature’s intent to abrogate the amelioration doctrine; (2) the amendment mitigated punishment; and (3) final judgment had not been entered as of the date the amendment took effect.

The effective-date provision for DSRA § 18 states, “This section is effective the day following final enactment.” That language was almost identical to the language of Coolidge.  There is no language in DSRA § 18 that resembles the language at issue in Edstrom.  The Legislature expressly stated in other sections of the DSRA that those sections only “appl[y] to crimes committed on or after” the effective date. See Act of May 22, 2016, ch. 160, §§ 1-10, 15-17, 2016 Minn. Laws at 576-85, 588-90. The absence of such language from DSRA § 18 is telling; it signals that the Legislature did not intend to abrogate the amelioration doctrine. See Rohmiller v. Hart, 811 N.W.2d 585, 590-91 (Minn. 2012).

The State launched a bunch of arguments including the language of the bill’s author. Senator Ron Latz, stated: “There’s stuff I wanted that’s not in here. I wanted retroactivity—the opportunity for current incarcerated persons to be able to petition, to bring a motion to the district court to get resentenced under any new guidelines that take effect . . . . I didn’t get [that].” Hearing on S.F. 3481, Sen. Judiciary Comm., 89th Minn. Leg., Apr. 8, 2016 (video) (statement of Sen. Latz), at 4:33:00-4:33:30.

However, the court says this applies to retroactivity, not amelioration because that is what he actually said.   I am not in the business of making the state’s arguments for them, but I would argue no one, ever, uses the word “amelioration.”

The Court concluded, the guy who never lost a ball in the white dome meets the three requirements of the amelioration doctrine. First, no statement by the Legislature clearly demonstrates an intent to abrogate the doctrine. Second, the DSRA mitigates punishment.  Third, Number 34 has not had final judgment entered in his case. Accordingly, the guy we named my childhood dog after must be resentenced under the DSRA-amended sentencing grid.

This was based on Coolidge-Edstrom and under common law, the well-settled principle is that where criminal law in effect is repealed, absent a savings clause, all prosecutions are barred where not reduced to a final judgment. It is also true that a statute mitigating punishment is applied to acts committed before its effective date, as long as no final judgment has been reached. The rationale for such a rule is that the legislature has manifested its belief that the prior punishment is too severe and a lighter sentence is sufficient. Nothing would be accomplished by imposing a harsher punishment, in light of the legislative pronouncement, other than vengeance.  Coolidge, 282 N.W.2d at 514-15 (footnote and citations omitted).

So, if the new guidelines affected you and you appealed prior to August 1, 2016, you win.  Sort of like Kent Hrbek throwing Ronnie Gant off of first base.