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Published: Friday, December 23, 2016 @ 10:28 AM
Updated: Friday, December 23, 2016 @ 10:27 AM
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Sentences for Ohio drug offenders caught with cocaine must be based on how much pure cocaine the suspects had, not on the weight of the entire amount of suspected drugs, which could include filler material such as baking soda, the state Supreme Court ruled Friday.
A key issue in the case, decided by a 4-3 vote, was what the Legislature intended by defining cocaine as a drug by itself without adding "mixture" when it rewrote the law first in 1995 and again in 2011.
Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger, writing for the majority, said prosecutors failed to point to ambiguity in the law. As a result, the court must apply the law as written without figuring out what the Legislature meant, she said.
"The state must prove that the weight of the actual cocaine, excluding the weight of any filler materials, meets the statutory threshold," Lanzinger wrote.
Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor, writing for the minority, said fillers are inherent in the drug and not meant to be removed before it's consumed.
"That anything less than what is actually sold and consumed as cocaine would determine the penalty for cocaine possession is illogical and contrary to reality," she said.
The decision could reopen cases of individuals currently serving prison time for possessing more than 100 grams of cocaine, which requires a sentence of several years, said Andrew Mayle, who represented defendant Rafael Gonzales.
"The level of offense hinges on how much cocaine is there," Mayle said Friday. "That's why there's higher penalties. To say you don't need to prove how much cocaine is there is totally nonsensical."
The 2012 case stemmed from a drug sting near Toledo that netted an 11-year sentence for Gonzales after he was convicted of buying more than 100 grams of cocaine from an undercover informant.
Gonzales, 58, should be released following a court hearing because without the 100-gram conviction he should only have served about a year, Mayle said. Prosecutors never said how much actual cocaine was involved, Mayle said.
A message was left with the prosecutor in Wood County, where the case originated. Prosecutors across Ohio have said the type of ruling issued Friday could delay and shorten sentences for suspects caught with cocaine and force costly changes upon law enforcement.
The state Attorney General's office said in a court filing ahead of Friday's decision that only two states, New York and Georgia, require purity tests for cocaine in some cases. The rest measure the entire weight.