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There has been much public debate about laws, particularly in the federal system, that mandate heavy mandatory minimum prison sentences for certain drug offenses. However, such statutes are also on the books in Maryland, designed by the Legislature to enhance penalties for “drug kingpins” found with large quantities of illegal narcotics. Such a statute was reviewed in a reported opinion last week in a reported opinion from Maryland’s Court of Special Appeals in a case called Dana Johnson v. State of Maryland.
The Court’s opinion indicates that police officers on patrol noticed a vehicle with unusually darkly tinted windows, which fled after officers tried to pull it over. The officers later came upon the vehicle again, after it became involved in a serious car crash. At the hospital, the driver, Johnson, was found to have a bag with what turned out to be a large amount of heroin in his clothing. He was convicted by a judge of several offenses, including possession of an illegal drug with intent to distribute, and was sentenced to 14 years in prison under a statute which required a minimum sentence of five years for possession of that amount of heroin.
On appeal, defense counsel challenged the statute because although it contained a mandatory minimum sentence, it did not specify a maximum. The Court first rejected the argument; this meant that the maximum must also be five years, based upon the use of the word “minimum” as well as the Legislative history. It then addressed the claim that such a law without a specified maximum violated the 14th Amendment requirement of due process, as it was so vague as not to apprise violators of their maximum potential punishment.
The Court rejected the constitutional argument as well. It noted that fundamental fairness required by due process was met by the law, as it apprised potential offenders of the illegality of possession of specified amounts of illegal narcotics and the minimum punishment they face if convicted. The Court held that the lack of a specified maximum simply did not matter, as the purpose of such sentence enhancement laws is to deter drug dealers with minimum mandatory imprisonment.
The Court then upheld the trial judge’s discretion of a 14-year sentence based on the severity of the offense and the defendant’s history of drug convictions. This illustrates how mandatory minimum sentences are used in sentencing convicted drug dealers.
Thomas Patrick Ryan is a partner in the Rockville law firm of McCarthy Wilson, which specializes in civil litigation.