The Mississippi Court of Appeals on Tuesday upheld a mandatory life sentence for a 38-year-old man convicted of marijuana possession, reasoning that his previous convictions made him a “violent habitual offender” under state law.
Allen Russell was sentenced to life in prison by a Mississippi circuit court in 2019 after a jury convicted him of possessing more than 30 grams of marijuana and prosecutors introduced evidence of his prior convictions during his sentencing hearing.
Under Mississippi law, a person convicted of two separate felonies—at least one of which is violent—and who serves at least one year in prison for each of those felony convictions “shall” be sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility for probation or parole as a violent habitual offender.
Russell in 2004 pleaded guilty to burglary charges for which he served over eight years. In 2015, he pleaded guilty to possessing a firearm as a convicted felon for which he served two years.
While Mississippi law designates burglary as a “crime of violence,” that has only been the case since the state legislature changed the law in 2014. Prior to that, at the time when Russell pleaded guilty to burglary, the crime was only designated as a violent crime if the state could prove that actual violence was committed during the commission of the act.
Russell argued on appeal that his enhanced sentence “constitutes cruel and unusual punishment and is grossly disproportionate to the crime committed,”
But a majority of judges on the en banc appeals court, however, considered Russell’s past burglary convictions anew in light of his marijuana possession conviction, viewing them as per se violent crimes in the wake of the 2014 law change.
“This Court has recognized that it is a fundamental right not to be subjected to ex post facto laws. However, we have found no constitutional violation where an enhanced sentence was enforced based on felonies committed before the passing of a habitual-offender statute,” Presiding Judge Virginia Carlton wrote in the court’s majority opinion. “Thus, although burglary of a dwelling was not considered a per se crime of violence at the time of Russell’s 2004 felony convictions, burglary of a dwelling was considered a per se crime of violence in accordance with section 97-3-2 at the time of Russell’s 2019 conviction for possession of a controlled substance and subsequent sentencing as a habitual offender. We therefore find no error in the circuit court’s enforcement of the enhanced sentence in the present case.”
The majority further reasoned that the 2014 law change was “in essence” the legislature warning those previously convicted of burglary that if they committed another felony they would be subject to life without parole.
Multiple dissenting judges argued that exceptions should be made in cases of “relatively low-level” felony convictions.
“The purpose of the criminal justice system is to punish those who break the law, deter them from making similar mistakes, and give them the opportunity to become productive members of society,” Judge Latrice Westbrooks wrote. “The fact that judges are not routinely given the ability to exercise discretion in sentencing all habitual offenders is completely at odds with this goal.”
Read the full ruling below.
[image via Mississippi Department of Corrections]
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