High court draws line on stiff drug sentences Md. judges restricted in toughening penalties

November 17, 1998|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

A divided Court of Appeals ruled yesterday that a judge may not give a repeat drug dealer a doubly harsh sentence on a single charge -- making part of the sentence mandatory without parole, then doubling the sentence under a different law.

Instead, judges must pick one way of toughening the penalty.

The 4-3 decision by the state's highest court undercuts moves by prosecutors seeking to take advantage of every means allowable to stiffen penalties for repeat drug dealers.

"In the future it will be up to the prosecutor to choose how to seek these mandatory minimum and enhanced penalties," said Celia Anderson Davis, assistant attorney general.

The ruling leaves intact other strong penalties. It does not touch a provision allowing doubled and no-parole sentences for drug kingpins. It also does not stop prosecutors from asking judges to double one sentence, and to exclude parole for another in cases where separate drug charges are brought against one person.

"This case will affect a lot of cases," said assistant public defender Julia Doyle Bernhardt. "It is a pretty broad statement. It affects anyone with a prior conviction" for manufacturing or distributing drugs.

Yesterday's ruling will reduce by at least eight years the sentence of a Pennsylvania man who was convicted in 1996 by a Kent County Circuit Court jury.

In 1997, Judge J. Frederick Price sentenced Ade Yemi Scott, 27, to 57 years in prison for possession of 80 grams of crack cocaine with intent to distribute and related charges. At issue is the first 28 years of the sentence.

The law allows for a term of up to 20 years in prison, with some of that mandatory. Another law al- lows a judge to double prison sentences for repeat offenders, and Scott had three prior drug convictions. Price doubled the 14-year maximum sentence recommended in state guidelines to 28 years and said the first five years should be served without parole.

The Court of Special Appeals agreed a year ago. Scott challenged that.

Four judges of the state's highest court -- Chief Judge Robert M. Bell and Judges John C. Eldridge, Howard S. Chasanow and Dale R. Cathell -- said a judge may go with only one sentencing arrangement. They relied heavily on a 1997 opinion in which the top court ruled that one sentence may not be toughened in two ways when both methods are based on the same facts.

Yesterday's decision extended that to cover stiffer sentences based on different aspects of the case, Scott's past drug convictions and the volume of the drugs found on him, more than 50 grams of crack.

Because the law specifically allowed judges to enhance sentences twice for drug kingpins and was silent on other types of drug convictions, the majority reasoned that the law was too ambiguous to apply in all cases.

Judge Irma S. Raker, joined in dissent by Judges Lawrence F. Rodowsky and Alan M. Wilner, said that was illogical.

Pub Date: 11/17/98

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