Changes in Drug Possession Penalties Apply to Defendants Convicted Before, but Sentenced After, 2011 Law’s Effective Date
Defendants convicted of possessing crack cocaine before legislation reducing criminal penalties became effective but sentenced after the law’s effective date must be sentenced based on the new law’s provisions, the Supreme Court of Ohio ruled today.
The case centers on legislation that eliminated disparities in criminal sentences between crack cocaine and powder cocaine, along with changes to penalties for other crimes. The legislation, H.B. 86, was effective on September 30, 2011.
The Supreme Court determined that Amber Limoli, convicted of crack cocaine possession in Franklin County in August 2011 but sentenced to a year in prison in October 2011, was entitled to a reduced penalty based on the law, even though it became effective after she pled no contest.
The unanimous decision, written by Justice William M. O’Neill, sends Limoli’s case back to the trial court for further consideration and affirms the judgment of the Tenth District Court of Appeals in the case.
In July 2010, police stopped Limoli for jaywalking in Columbus. During a search, the officers found she was carrying nine grams of crack. She pled no contest on August 18, 2011. At her sentencing hearing on October 14, two weeks after H.B. 86’s effective date, the court sentenced Limoli to one year in prison based on the law at the time of her plea.
She appealed to the Tenth District, which reversed the trial court’s decision. The state appealed to the Supreme Court.
Before H.B. 86 became effective, Justice O’Neill explained, possessing five to ten grams of crack cocaine was a third-degree felony requiring a mandatory prison term. Post-legislation, crack is no longer mentioned in the law, and possessing cocaine in the same amounts is a lesser, fourth-degree felony, which permits courts to impose community-control sanctions rather than prison, he added.
The legislature stated that H.B. 86’s intent was to reduce the prison population and save incarceration costs by diverting some offenders from prison and shortening the sentences of others, Justice O’Neill wrote. Section 3 of the bill in part provides that the bill’s changes apply to persons to whom R.C. 1.58(B) apply. He noted that the section states, “If the penalty, forfeiture, or punishment for any offense is reduced by a reenactment or amendment of a statute, the penalty, forfeiture, or punishment, if not already imposed, shall be imposed according to the statute as amended.”
“The United States Supreme Court has emphasized that legislative intent determines whether a defendant is entitled to the benefit of legislation that reduces the penalties for a crime after the crime has been committed but prior to sentencing,” Justice O’Neill wrote. “This court has also stated that the General Assembly’s expression of its intent must control.”
Given the legislature’s intent in passing H.B. 86, the court concluded that Limoli must be sentenced to a fourth-degree felony.
Justice Judith L. French concurred only in the judgment of the court. The remaining justices concurred in the court’s opinion.
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