STATE EX REL JOHN ESTEEN v. STATE OF LOUISIANA

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Supreme Court of Louisiana.

STATE EX REL. JOHN ESTEEN v. STATE OF LOUISIANA

No. 2016-KH-0949

Decided: January 30, 2018

I fully agree with the majority opinion, which correctly overrules this court's opinion in State v. Dick, 06-2223 (La. 1/26/07), 951 So. 2d 124. I dissented in Dick, believing the majority in that case ignored a clear mandate from the legislature. The majority in this case now corrects that error.

As I explained in my dissent in Dick, the legislature clearly expressed its intent in La. R.S. 15:308(B) by stating that, in the interest of fairness in sentencing, the more lenient penalty provisions shall apply to persons who were sentenced prior to June 15, 2001. 951 So. 2d at 134 (Johnson, dissenting). The majority in this case correctly interprets the provisions in La. R.S. 15:308(B) and (C) to reach the result intended by the legislature. To hold defendant was limited to seeking relief from the committee on parole pursuant to La. R.S. 15:308(C), as suggested by the state, would create a completely discretionary system of implementation. The committee on parole is not required to apply the ameliorative provisions. Rather, the committee is directed to evaluate La. R.S. 15:308 applications and, “taking into consideration the risk of danger the applicant would pose to society if released from confinement,” issue recommendations to the Board of Pardons regarding “whether the applicant is eligible for a reduction,” as if La. R.S. 15:308 regulated parole eligibility, rather than mandatory retroactively reduced sentencing ranges.

The majority's opinion in this case is also consistent with the underlying reasoning of this court in State v. Mayeux, 01-3195 (La. 6/21/02), 820 So.2d 526. In Mayeux, defendant was arrested and charged with a violation of La. R.S. 14:98(E), DWI fourth offense. Subsequent to defendant's arrest, the legislature amended the statute's sentencing provisions, radically changing the way in which the offender serves the sentence imposed by the court. This court held that the district court erred in sentencing the defendant under the penalty provisions as they existed at the time of the defendant's DWI offense, rather than at the time of his conviction. In so doing, this court reasoned that although Louisiana courts have generally held that the law in effect at the date of the offense should control, the statutory language and legislative purpose behind the statutory amendment of La. R.S.14:98(G) dictated that the amendment be applied to those defendants having committed an offense prior to the effective date of the amendment. 820 So.2d at 529. Additionally, this court recognized the amendment was passed “in an effort to address the societal costs of drunken driving and a high per capita prison population.” Id. at 527. Similarly, in this case, the language in La. R.S. 15:308(B) clearly directs when the amended penalty provisions are applicable by mandating they be applied retroactively to those offenders already sentenced. Further, in my view, the ameliorative amendments represent a significant shift in policy relative to drug offenses in this state and demonstrate that the legislature has chosen to impose more lenient sentencing provisions. The legislative enactment of La. R.S. 15:308(B) addressed the inequity between penalties for identical offenses committed before and after the amendments went into effect, by giving offenders who received the harsher sentences the opportunity to have their sentences reduced in accordance with the ameliorative legislation. See Dick, 951 So. 2d at 135 (Johnson, dissenting).

When courts impose sentences exceeding the express sentencing provisions—either by mistake or, as in this case, because of a retroactive legislative mandate—the sentence must be considered illegal and courts are duty-bound to correct those sentences. Because defendant's sentences now exceed those set forth by the legislature, his sentences must be considered illegal and subject to correction by the courts. For these reasons and the reasons assigned by the majority, I find that defendant and other similarly-situated inmates are entitled to seek relief through the courts.

JOHNSON, C.J. additionally concurs and assigns reasons.