Each spring the passage of new laws creates numerous headlines coming out of the State House in Annapolis, and no subject creates more buzz than criminal legislation. Marijuana has dominated the last few years of criminal legislation headlines, but this year decriminalization and medical cannabis takes a back seat to a massive new set of laws falling under the Justice Reinvestment Act. Of all the new laws contained in the Act, none will be as impactful as the provision eliminating mandatory minimum jail sentences for a host of drug crimes. For decades a repeat offender for a low level drug dealing crime under 5-602 to 5-606 of the criminal code faced the possibility of a mandatory 10, 25 or 40 year sentence without parole. These mandatory sentences were often used as leverage by prosecutors to pressure defendants into pleading guilty, as the trial judge would have no choice but to slam a convicted defendant who turned down a plea deal. As of today though, a repeat offender for common street level drug dealer crimes such possession with intent to distribute narcotics will no longer face the possibility of a mandatory prison sentence upon conviction.
The new law repealing mandatory minimum sentencing only applies for street level drug dealing crimes and will have no effect on the so-called drug kingpin statute described in 5-612. These crimes, which include possessing, distributing or manufacturing 50 pounds or more of marijuana, 28 grams or more of opiates like heroin and 448 grams or more of cocaine will retain a 5-year mandatory sentence and a massive $100,000 potential fine. Mandatory minimum sentences for possessing a firearm in a drug trafficking crime are also unaffected by the new law.
In crafting the Justice Reinvestment Act lawmakers not only eliminated the mandatory minimum for low-level drug dealing, but also created an avenue for those already serving mandatory sentences for these crimes to file a special motion to modify their sentence. Starting today the courts are accepting motions to modify these sentences and will likely be inclined to grant them unless the state proves keeping the mandatory sentence intact is necessary for the protection of the public. Defendants currently serving prison time will have until September of 2018 to file for this special modification. Those serving mandatory sentences for drug kingpin crimes and firearm crimes are not eligible to file for this modification.