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March 20, 2017

Split Louisiana Supreme Court refuses to allow jury to hear about potentially applicable mandatory minimum sentence for habitual offender

I just learned today about an interesting set of opinions handed down last week by the Louisiana Supreme Court in Louisiana v. Guidry, No. 2016-KK-1412 (La. March 15, 2017) (available here).  This lengthy local article about the decision, headlined "Jurors shouldn't be told possible mandatory minimums for repeat offenders, La. Supreme Court rules," provides this basic summary of the ruling and its context:

Louisiana jurors should not be told of possible mandatory minimum sentences defendants might face under the state's habitual offender law, because the knowledge could distract from their duty to determine guilt or innocence in a case, the Louisiana Supreme Court said in a split decision issued late Wednesday (March 15).

In a 5-2 ruling, the high court said the issue of possible mandatory minimums for repeat defendants "is too far attenuated from the guilt phase of trial to be discussed before a jury," and for a trial judge to allow such disclosure constitutes error. Chief Justice Bernette J. Johnson and Justice John L. Weimer dissented.

The decision comes in response to the Orleans Parish case of Corei Guidry, an accused drug dealer whose trial before Criminal District Court Judge Byron C. Williams has been stayed over this issue since last July.  Guidry, 29, faces 10 to 50 years if found guilty of possession with the intent to distribute heroin. Should he be convicted of what would be his fourth felony offense, District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro's office would have the post-trial option to file a multiple-offender bill.  If Guidry's prior history of three or more felony convictions can be proven at a post-conviction hearing, the judge would be required under state law to impose a mandatory minimum sentence of 50 years to life.

Here is how the majority opinion in this case begins:

The issue presented in this case is whether the trial court may allow a criminal jury to be informed of the possible mandatory minimum sentence faced by the defendant if, after a conviction on the offense being tried, he were to be sentenced under the Habitual Offender Law. For the reasons set forth below, we find the district court erred in denying the State’s motion in limine, which sought to disallow the defendant from mentioning in argument the mandatory minimum sentence the defendant could be subject to under the Habitual Offender Law should the State seek to enhance his sentence under that law and should the court find the State has proved all of the elements to warrant enhancement of the sentence. We find the issue of the possible mandatory minimum sentences that may be imposed if the defendant is convicted and the State successfully pursues enhancement of the sentence under the Habitual Offender law is too attenuated from the guilt phase of trial to be discussed before a jury, because it shifts the focus of the jury from its duty to determine guilt or innocence to issues regarding sentencing, possibly causing confusion of the issues and inviting the jury to speculate as to why a defendant may be facing such a term of imprisonment. Accordingly, we reverse the district court’s ruling.

And here is how the chief dissenting opinion starts:

I respectfully dissent and would deny the writ because the state has shown no abuse of discretion in the trial court’s denial of the state’s motion to prohibit the defense from referencing the possible life sentence that defendant will all but certainly face if convicted and adjudged a habitual offender. It has long been settled that it is within the trial judge’s discretion, in instances in which a specific punishment is not statutorily mandated, to permit or deny instruction or argument as to sentencing. The majority has accepted the invitation of the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office to establish a new per se rule which will substantially limit trial court discretion to control the information given to the jury. Under this new rule, any reference — whether by the court or in argument from the parties — to the enhanced sentence a defendant will face if he is convicted and adjudged a habitual offender, will be impermissible, unless perhaps the defendant elects to testify and subject himself to cross-examination about his prior convictions.

The trial court has the discretion to permit or prohibit references to sentencing, other than for those sentences automatically mandated by statute, because the trial judge sits in the best position to determine whether the penalty provisions at issue, including those applicable under the Habitual Offender Law, constitute “law applicable to the case,” of which the jury should be apprised under the circumstances of the particular prosecution.

I am unpersuaded that the trial court abused its discretion here by refusing to prohibit the defense from referencing the potential habitual offender sentence, especially in light of the overwhelming evidence that the Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office almost reflexively (through his assistant district attorneys) institutes habitual offender proceedings upon securing the conviction at trial of a defendant with a prior felony. The prosecuting attorneys in Orleans Parish routinely wield the Habitual Offender Law, both during pre-trial plea negotiations and, in the event that tactic fails to yield a guilty plea, after obtaining a conviction at trial, to secure the harsher punishment of even non-violent offenders.

As the start of the dissenting opinion hints, there is a significant back-story to both the substantive and procedural issues surrounding this Louisiana case and the application of the state's Habitual Offender law.  Because various opinions in Guidry engage in that back-story in various ways, the full opinion is definitely worth a full read.

March 20, 2017 at 06:13 PM | Permalink


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