Legislature’s different approach to drug possession divides Supreme Court

It’s a curious reality of the Minnesota Supreme Court that you don’t often see the “Pawlenty wing” and the “Dayton wing” of the court so publicly lined up against each other, but two cases today highlighted a sharp division over sentences handed to drug offenders since a change in the state’s sentencing guidelines.

Michael Kirby, for example, was sentenced to about 13 years in prison in 2014 for his conviction on methamphetamine possession charges.

But the Minnesota House, in the waning hours of the 2016 legislative session, passed the Drug Sentencing Reform Act, a bill aimed at directing users into treatment and cracking down on “kingpins.”

Should Kirby’s sentence be changed to comply with the new sentencing guidelines — somewhere between 110 and 153 months?

“Yes,” the “Dayton wing” of the Minnesota Supreme Court declared today.

“No”, the “Pawlenty wing” responded.

But it’s not a case of retroactively dealing with the sentences of criminals, Justice David Lillehaug declared in his opinion on behalf of the court majority, vacating Kirby’s conviction and ordering a new sentence (See opinion). It’s a case of “amelioration.”

Kirby’s appeal of his original sentence hadn’t been settled by the time the new law took effect last August.

Lillehaug rejected Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson’s argument that the Legislature did not intend for the so-called “Amelioration Doctrine” — requiring the resentencing of a person whose conviction was not yet final on the effective date of a law change — to apply.

“The Legislature contemplated that reduced sentences for the majority of drug offenders would reduce prison populations and costs, producing savings for programs that help drug addicts and low-level offenders,” Lillehaug wrote. “Overall, the DSRA mitigates punishment, and it especially does so for offenders such as Kirby.”

In his dissent, joined by justices David Stras and Lorie Gildea, Justice G. Barry Anderson said the Legislature clearly intended for the new sentencing guidelines to apply only to crimes committed after last August’s effective date.

” … the presumptive sentence is determined by the sentencing guidelines in effect on the date of the offense—in this case, November 22, 2013, the date on which Kirby was arrested for possessing controlled substances,” he wrote.

In a separate ruling, the Minnesota Supreme Court also vacated the 11-year sentence of Travis Otto, of Fridley, Minn., who was arrested with five baggies of suspected methamphetamine after crashing his vehicle into an electrical pole.

Otto argued that under the new law, his 29 grams of meth no longer qualifies as first-degree possession. It increased the threshold from 25 to 50 grams.

The court rejected that argument — that would be retroactive — but vacated his sentence for the same reason it vacated Kirby’s.

And justices Stras, Gildea, and Anderson dissented for the same reasons, too.