ANNAPOLIS – The Maryland Court of Appeals ruled Friday that a sentence of 20 years without parole was too harsh for a man caught with 209 grams of crack cocaine.
The high court said that the General Assembly meant to impose a mandatory minimum sentence of five years without parole on such criminals and a maximum of 20 years.
But the maximum was not meant to include the “no parole” provision, the appellate court ruled.
The decision in the case of convicted drug kingpin Richard A. Lewis will not affect his time behind bars — he is serving a separate 20-years-without-parole sentence under the kingpin statute.
But Friday’s ruling will guide future sentencings in cases where drug dealers are convicted of having more than 50 grams of crack cocaine or more than 400 grams of powdered cocaine.
In her opinion for the court, Judge Irma Raker said the legislature did not mean to eliminate parole altogether in sentencing people convicted of possessing such high amounts of drugs.
Mandatory sentencing provisions are spelled out by the General Assembly “unequivocally, in clear and unambiguous terms,” Raker wrote, but that was not the case with Lewis’ sentence.
Ironically, she bolstered her argument by citing the language of the drug kingpin statute — the very guideline that ensured Lewis would serve a full 20 years, regardless of his appeal’s outcome.
The kingpin sentencing law calls for a mandatory imprisonment “for not less than 20 nor more than 40 years without the possibility of parole.”
“There is simply no ambiguity with regard to the applicability of the no-parole provision,” Raker wrote of that provision. “It clearly and unambiguously applies to the entire sentence imposed.”
Kent County Circuit Judge J. Frederick Price, who sentenced Lewis, had interpreted the statute as eliminating any possibility of parole. That sentence was upheld by the Court of Special Appeals before the high court took up the case and reversed.
Assistant Public Defender Julia Doyle Bernhardt, who argued Lewis’ appeal, said she was not surprised by the high court’s decision.
“I always thought the law was crystal clear,” she said. “I was shocked when the state argued that it was clear the other way.”