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Sharply Divided Court Rules on Application of New Drug Laws

26th July 2017

Minnesota’s 2016 Drug Sentencing Reform Act was passed by the legislature with an overarching objective:  severely punish high level drug distributors and offenses that involve violence or the potential of violence and lessen the punishment for low level drug offenders.  The Drug Sentencing Reform Act dramatically changed the drug laws in Minnesota in a variety of ways to accomplish that objective.  In a pair of decisions that were filed today, the Minnesota Supreme Court decided how two of those changes will be applied to offenses that occurred prior to the new drug laws.


The two changes to Minnesota’s drug laws at issue in today’s decisions are the lower sentencing guidelines for certain drug offenders and the increased threshold amounts required for a conviction of Minnesota’s more serious drug crimes.  The question before the Court was whether the lowered sentencing guidelines and increased threshold amounts apply to offenses that occurred prior to the law’s enactment by the legislature.  The practical consequence of the Court’s decision was to decide whether defendants would receive the benefit of a lower sentence under the new law or if they are stuck with the older, harsher, penalties.


In the 4 justice to 3 justice decisions, the Minnesota Supreme Court narrowly decided that defendants whose cases are pending, with no final judgment entered yet, are entitled to sentencing, or even resentencing, under the mitigated sentencing guidelines.  This means that even if the offense occurred prior to the Drug Sentencing Reform Act’s enactment, a defendant is entitled to the lower presumptive sentence as long final judgment was not entered.   If a defendant’s case is on appeal, or his case was still within the time to file an appeal when the law was enacted, he is entitled to resentencing under the lower guidelines.  In many instances this can result in a reduction of years off of a defendant’s sentence.

With regard to whether the higher threshold amounts apply to past offenses, the Minnesota Supreme Court decided that portion of the Drug Sentencing Reform Act is not applicable to offenses committed before the law’s effective date.  The court reasoned that the difference in the language used by the legislature regarding the two changes in the law compels the two very different applications.  The Minnesota Supreme Court explained in detail the difference in the language used by the amendment:

“As relevant here, the DSRA changed the controlled-substance laws in several ways. First, the DSRA reduced the presumptive sentencing ranges for first-degree controlled-substance crimes. Id. § 18, 2016 Minn. Laws at 590-91. That section became ‘effective the day following final enactment,’ which occurred when the governor signed the act on May 22, 2016. Id. Second, the DSRA increased the weight thresholds necessary for first-, second-, and third-degree possession of methamphetamine. Id. §§ 3-5, 2016 Minn. Laws at 577-82. Those sections became ‘effective August 1, 2016, and appl[y] to crimes committed on or after that date.’ Id. Third, the DSRA added aggravating factors that could be used to increase the degree of an offense for selling or possessing methamphetamine. Id. §§ 2-5, 2016 Minn. Laws at 576-83. Those sections became ‘effective August 1, 2016, and appl[y] to crimes committed on or after that date.’ Id. Finally, the DSRA created a new category of aggravated first-degree controlled-substance crimes. Id. § 3, subd. 2b, 2016 Minn. Laws at 577-79. That change became ‘effective August 1, 2016, and applies to crimes committed on or after that date.’ Id.”

State of Minnesota, Respondent, v. Michael William Kirby, Appellant., No. A15-0117 (Minn. July 26, 2017).

With regard to the lower sentencing guidelines, the Minnesota Supreme Court noted that the legislature’s chosen language did not explicitly limit its application to offenses committed on or after the law’s effective date.  The Court relied on a 160 year old common law principle called the “amelioration doctrine” to conclude that when a statute is amended and mitigates an offense’s punishment, that amendment is applicable if final judgment has yet to be entered in the case and if the legislature did not clearly establish its intent to nullify the doctrine.  Because the phrase, “effective the day following final enactment,” does not clearly establish an intent nullify the amelioration doctrine, the lower sentencing guidelines are applicable to non-final convictions.  However, the threshold amount increase portion of the amendment contained effective date language materially different than the guidelines portion of the law.  The Minnesota Supreme Court recognized that the language, “and applies to crimes committed on or after that date,” is a clear nullification of the amelioration doctrine and therefore that portion of the amendment only applies to offenses committed after the law’s effective date.


Lundgren & Johnson, PSC, stays current with the leading edge of the law for the benefit of our clients and our case results are a reflection of that.  If you or a loved one have recently been convicted of a drug offense and would like to discuss whether you can utilize the decisions issued today to lower your sentence because of the new drug laws, please contact attorneys David Lundgren or Adam Johnson for a free consultation.  We look forward to speaking with you.