When most people hear that a convicted defendant is sentenced to 189 months in jail, they assume the defendant has to serve the entire 189 months. A recent Minnesota Supreme Court decision has shown otherwise. We picked this case for this week’s blog because it dispels a lot of notions many may understandably have – the notion that, when convicted, you serve the entire term you’re given.
In State v. Leathers, the Minnesota Supreme Court had to determine whether the phrase “full term of imprisonment,” did in fact mean that a defendant convicted of first-degree assault would be required to serve the entire sentenced term or whether it meant he would have to serve just two-thirds of the executed sentence in prison.
The phrase “full term of imprisonment,” of course, caused some problems in this case. For those that deal with sentences, plea negotiations, and “good time” we expect that those being sentenced will typically serve two thirds (2/3) of the sentence. The remaining “good time” would be monitored by probation.
In this case, Steven Leathers was convicted of five counts of first-degree assault against a peace officer arising from an incident involving five law enforcement officers. He was sentenced to a total of 189 months in prison with eligibility for supervised release after 126 months.
Supervised release is when the offender is released from prison, but is still supervised by a probation officers. The offender must report regularly to his or her officer and will sometimes require permission to leave a certain geographic area.
Both sides appealed, with the State claiming that the district court erred when it ruled Mr. Leathers would be eligible for release after serving just two-thirds of his sentence. Mr. Leathers appealed the conviction altogether (obviously).
The Minnesota Court of Appeals upheld the conviction, but also held that Mr. Leathers would not be eligible for supervised release and would in fact have to serve the entire 189 months. This is because section 609.221 specifies that the defendant must serve the “full term of imprisonment.” However, upon review, the Minnesota Supreme Court reversed the court of appeals’ sentencing verdict, holding that Mr. Leathers would in fact be eligible for supervised release after he served two-thirds of his prison sentence (as many Criminal Defense Attorney’s would expect).
So why doesn’t he have to serve all 189 months despite the “full term of imprisonment” language? This case falls completely to statutory interpretation. Because the court is dealing with an ambiguous criminal statute, the ambiguity should be resolved in the defendant’s favor. But to do so, the court has to use statutes to define “full term of imprisonment.”
At first glance, the court says that the statute governing first-degree assault, § 609.221, makes Mr. Leathers ineligible for supervised release. However, the statute does not directly define the key phrase “full term of imprisonment,” and in fact states that Mr. Leathers would not be eligible for release until after his “full term of imprisonment”. Therefore, it is essential that the court define this term to decide at what point is his full term of imprisonment complete.
The court looks to section 244.01 because chapter 244 deals with criminal sentences, whereas chapter 609 deals more with the actual criminal offense itself. The court concludes that because these statutes share a common purpose and subject matter, they may be interpreted together. Section 244.01 states that Mr. Leathers’ executed sentence must contain two parts: “a specified minimum term of imprisonment that is equal to two-thirds of the executed sentence, and a specified maximum supervised release term that is equal to one-third of the executed sentence.” In Mr. Leathers’ case, this means he would be eligible for supervised release after 126 months, assuming he had no disciplinary violations.
Because of section 244.01 and the ambiguity of section 609.221, the Minnesota Supreme Court held that Mr. Leathers is eligible for supervised release after he has served two-thirds of his sentence, just 126 of the total 189 months.
In our opinion, a main concern of the court’s when making their decision was that the legislature wrote the laws so that convicted defendants were given a chance to diminish their sentence a little if they just behaved themselves. The court here wrote that interpreting the term “full term of imprisonment” to mean that an offender must actually serve his entire prison sentence would directly contradict the meaning of section 244.101. As a rule, courts tend to shy away from holdings that contradict statutes (avoiding contradictions tends to make life easier for all of us).
In our humble opinion, we think the court got it right. This case shows us that even when given a long prison sentence for doing something stupid, there’s hope of getting out early if you just behave.
Please remember that the interpretation and analysis presented here is not intended to be legal advice. If you are seeking legal advice please contact us for a free consultation and actual examination of the issues that your case may present.
By: Kari Wilberg
Landon J. Ascheman, Esq.
(B) 612.217.0077 (C) 651.280.9533 (F) 651.344.0700