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Commonwealth v. Laltaprasad

Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Suffolk

October 14, 2016

COMMONWEALTH
v.
IMRAN LALTAPRASAD.

          Heard: April 5, 2016.

         Civil action commenced in the Supreme Judicial Court for the county of Suffolk on August 20, 2015. The case was reported by Cordy, J.

          Thomas C. Maxim, Assistant District Attorney, for the Commonwealth.

          Matthew R. Segal (Keith J. Nicholson, Adriana Lafaille, & Nancy Gertner with him) for the defendant.

          Benjamin H. Keehn & Paul R. Rudof, Committee for Public Counsel Services, & Barbara J. Dougan, Michael B. Keating, Daniel N. Marx, & Daniel McFadden, for Committee for Public Counsel Services & others, amici curiae, submitted a brief.

          Emma Quinn-Judge, Monica R. Shah, & Daniel K. Gelb, for The Constitution Project & others, amici curiae, submitted a brief.

          Present: Gants, C.J., Spina, Cordy, Botsford, Duffly, Lenk, & Hines, JJ. [1]

          BOTSFORD, J.

         In this case we consider whether G. L. c. 211E, § 3 (e), authorizes a sentencing judge to depart from the mandatory minimum terms specified by statute for subsequent drug offenses. We conclude that because the Legislature has not yet enacted into law sentencing guidelines recommended by the Massachusetts Sentencing Commission (commission), a sentencing judge currently may not impose a sentence that departs from the prescribed mandatory minimum term. We do not reach in this case the constitutional claims that the defendant has raised for the first time in this court.[2]

         Background.

         In August, 2013, a Middlesex County grand jury indicted the defendant, Imran Laltaprasad, on a charge of possession with intent to distribute heroin, subsequent offense, G. L. c. 94C, § 32 (a.), (b); and two charges of possession with intent to distribute cocaine, subsequent offense, G. L. c. 94C, § 32A (c0, (d) . In July, 2015, a jury found the defendant guilty of possession with intent to distribute heroin, and one count of possession with intent to distribute cocaine; the defendant was found not guilty on the other count of that crime.[3]The defendant pleaded guilty to the subsequent offense portion of each of these charges. See G. L. c. 94C, §§ 32 (b) (heroin), 32A (d) (cocaine). Both counsel presented their sentencing recommendations, [4] and after hearing, the trial judge stated that she would depart downward from the mandatory minimum sentence provisions of the two subsequent offense statutes, each of which requires a minimum term of three and one-half years in State prison, and would impose instead a sentence of two and one-half years in a house of correction. In a written memorandum of decision, the trial judge explained her reasons:

"(1) The defendant does not have a prior conviction for drug trafficking at seriousness levels 7 or 8; and
"(2) The facts and circumstances surrounding this matter warrant a lesser sentence. Specifically, the defendant was arrested with less than 1 gram of the controlled substances. Further the defendant was severely injured when another individual shot a firearm at him. He suffered 11 gunshot wounds and endured 21 surgeries prior to trial. The defendant also lost his leg and sustained serious abdominal damage due to those injuries. Evidence of his current medical condition was presented at trial. Given both the relatively small amount of contraband involved in the arrest and the extreme medical condition of the defendant, the Court will depart downward and impose a sentence of 2.5 years in the House of Correction."

         On July 30, 2015, the Commonwealth filed a motion to reconsider the sentences imposed, which the judge denied. The Commonwealth then filed in the county court a petition for relief pursuant to G. L. c. 211, § 3. In October, 2015, the single justice reserved and reported the case to the full court without decision.

         Discussion.

         1. Statutory authority.

         The sentencing provisions of three statutes are at issue in this case. The first two are the statutory drug crimes of which the defendant was convicted: possession of heroin with intent to distribute, second or subsequent offense, G. L. c. 94C, § 32 (b); and possession of cocaine with intent to distribute, second or subsequent offense, G. L. c. 94C, § 32A (d). Upon a defendant's conviction and regardless of the amount of heroin or cocaine involved, the Legislature has prescribed in each of these statutes a mandatory minimum period of incarceration, three and one-half years, to be served in State prison.[5]

         The third statute, G. L. c. 211E, § 3 (e), is part of a chapter of the General Laws entitled "Massachusetts Sentencing Commission" that was added by the Legislature in 1996. See St. 1996, c. 12, § 9 (1996 act). Section 3 of c. 211E focuses specifically on the responsibility of the commission to recommend sentencing guidelines for use in the District Court, the Boston Municipal Court, and the Superior Court. See St. 1993, c. 432, § 1 (a). Although the sentence ranges to be set by the guidelines are to be presumptive in most circumstances, § 3 (e) provides:

"Except for the crimes set forth in [G. L. c. 265, § 1, (murder)], the sentencing judge may depart from the range established by the sentencing guidelines and impose a sentence below any mandatory minimum term prescribed by statute if the judge sets forth in writing reasons for departing from that range on a sentencing statement . . . based on a finding that there exists one or more mitigating circumstances that should result in a sentence different from the one otherwise prescribed by the guidelines and below any applicable mandatory minimum term."

         The trial judge did not expressly reference G. L. c. 211E, § 3 (e), in sentencing the defendant or in her sentencing memorandum, but the record indicates that in departing from the mandatory minimum sentencing provisions, she relied on § 3 (e) for authority to do so. The Commonwealth argues that the judge lacked authority to reach this result because the mandatory minimum sentence departure authorization in § 3 (e) only becomes operative when the commission's recommended sentencing guidelines are "enacted into law" by legislative vote, as mandated by c. 211E, § 3 (a.) (I), [6] and the Legislature has not done so to date. The defendant argues, however, that the plain language of § 3 (e) authorizes judges to depart from mandatory minimum sentences independently of the enactment of any sentencing guidelines and, even if § 3 (e) 's language and meaning were not ...


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