HB 349 makes a hodge podge of changes to the criminal laws. First and foremost is an expansion of the state's appeal rights.
New Direct Appeal Right Granted to the State
The state will now have the right to short circuit the progress of a case to trial if the trial judge excludes any evidence from use at trial.
Previously, the state could directly appeal a judgment suppressing or excluding any evidence illegally seized or excluding the results of any test for alcohol or drugs if that ruling was made prior to the impaneling of a jury.
Now, the state can appeal any adverse evidentiary ruling. This is a broad and sweeping right. It can arise in a variety of situations.
- Similar Transactions. The state may give notice of intent to use similar transactions at trial for certain allowable purposes. The court must conduct a hearing. If the judge determines that the evidence will not serve that purpose or is not admissible for any other reason, the state will now be allowed to make a direct appeal.
- Inflammatory Materials. The defense may seek to prohibit the introduction of material which will inflame the jury but which does not have much probative value. For instance, in a child molestation case, the state may seek to introduce pornography found in the defendant's home even if the pornography is all of adults. This type of evidence can also include gruesome crime scene photos which for which a judge may determine them to be more prejudical than probative.
- Demonstrative Evidence. The new law refers to evidence to be used by the state at trial and does not require that it be evidence which the state seeks to have admitted at trial. As such, it could include posters, Powerpoint presentations, models, animations and other similar items which the State might use at trial. The defense might seek to exclude the use of material which it considers misleading or not based on admissible evidence. A ruling adverse to the state would give the State a right of direct appeal.
The only triggers on the right is that the ruling must be based on a motion filed at least 30 days prior to trial and ruled on prior to the impaneling of a jury.
The state must file its notice of appeal within two (2) days of the adverse ruling.
The prosecuting attorney must also certify to the trial court that such appeal is not taken for purpose of delay and that the evidence is a substantial proof of a material fact in the proceeding.
New Right of Cross-Appeal in Interlocutory Appeals
A party can apply for permission to file an appeal prior to the final judgment. This is called an interlocutory appeal. Where a Defendant is granted the right to pursue such an appeal, the State may now cross-appeal at that time any issues that it wishes.
"Knowingly" Element Removed from Drug Trafficking Statute
Any serious criminal offense requires the convergence of an act with a criminal intent. The levels of intent can vary. More serious crimes usually require a higher level of intent. In some cases, negligence is sufficient to support the charge.
For drug trafficking, Georgia law has long required that the offense to be committed "knowingly." That word has now been stripped from OCGA 16-13-31 and 16-13-31.1. The appellate courts had already stripped the word from its application to the quantity of the drugs involved even though the quantity was the element which subjected the person to the enhanced punishment provisions related to trafficking.
In this regard, it is worth noting that a mere 28 grams of cocaine (just short of an ounce) is enough to subject a person to trafficking charges. That is true even if the cocaine was a mixture with only ten percent purity.
Presumably, the removal of the word does not strip the requirement of a criminal intent. What level of intent may be an issue on account of the law change.
A package is shipped via the United States Postal Service, containing 15 small bottles of baby powder and one small bottle containing baby powder and a baggy with 28 grams of cocaine. It is shipped from Texas to Gainesville, Georgia. It is intercepted in Gainesville, Georgia, where its contents are discovered. The police make a controlled delivery to the addressee who is then arrested.
Should the police then arrest the truck driver on whose truck, the package was brought into the state even though he didn't know the drugs were in the package? Why not? The statute only used to require that the possession or bringing into the state be done knowingly. Doesn't the removal of the word "knowingly" mean that the legislature wanted to criminalize even unknowing possession. The point is that the knowing element served a role in defining what the offense was.
Safety Valve Added to Trafficking Sentencing
The court may now depart from the strict sentencing provisions of the trafficking statute under certain circumstances. In order to depart, the court must make certain findings:
- The defendant was not a leader of the criminal conduct
- The defendant did not possess a weapon during the crime
- No death or serious bodily injury resulted to a person who was not a party to the crime
- The defendant has no prior felony conviction; and
- The interests of justice would not be served by the imposition of the prescribed minimum sentence
The range of departure is limited by the quantity of and type of drug involved in the offense.
The court's decision to depart in sentencing may be appealed by the State.
Plea Negotiation Escape Clause Added to Trafficking Sentencing
The new statute will now allow a trial judge to sentence a trafficking defendant to any sentence agreed to by the state and the defendant even if it is blow the mandatory minimum.
Overall, this is a good thing, but it will likely cause a great disparity of the disposition of cases across the state as some prosecutors will be willing to negotiate cases with compelling facts and others will use the harsh mandatory minimums to force pleas or trials.
Escape Clause Added to Mandatory Minimums for Serious Violent Felonies, Sex Offenders, and Repeat Offenders
A similar escape clause which allows the trial judge to sentence a defendant facing a mandatory minimum sentence if the state and the defendant agree to such treatment. This escape clause has been added to the sentencing provisions for:
- OCGA 17-10-6.1 which governs sentencing for serious violent felonies including kidnapping a victim under 14 years of age, rape, aggravated child molestation, aggravated sodomy, aggravated sexual battery.
- OCGA 17-10-6.2 which governs sentencing for certain sexual offenses
- OCGA 17-10-7 which governs sentencing for repeat offenders
Permanent Council on Criminal Justice Reform Created
The legislation also creates a permanent Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform. The council will be charged with conducting periodic comprehensive reviews of criminal laws, criminal procedure, sentencing issues, juvenile justice issues, probation and parole issues, prison issues, and accountability courts. The council shall establish performance measures and track the implementation of reforms.
All members of the council will be appointed by the Governor. The membership shall be composed of:
- one member of the Senate
- one member of the House of Representatives
- either a Supreme Court Justice or a Court of Appeals Judge
- a Superior Court Judge
- a Juvenile Court Judge
- a District Attorney
- a criminal defense attorney
- a sheriff
- the executive counsel to the Governor or his or her designee
- the Director of the Governor's Office for Children and Faimilies and
- five other members determined by the Governor.
Appointees will serve terms of four years or until their successor is appointed, except the General Assembly members, who serve only until the completion of their current terms of office in the legislature.
The chairperson of the council will be appointed by the Governor but he council may elect other officers as it finds necessary.
Comprehensive reviews must be conducted at least every two years.
GED HOPE Coupons Expiration Dates Extended for Prisoners
The state gives every person obtaining their GED a voucher worth $500 for use at any post-secondary school in Georgia. Such vouchers expire 24 months after the date of the GED. The legislature has wisely decided to allow the vouchers to be extended to twenty-four months following the release of the person from prison if they earned the GED while incarcerated.
Corrections Made to the Upcoming Records Restriction Law
A previous blog post addressed the records restriction law which will replace the expungement law in July. A number of corrections have been made in HB 349, but those changes will be addressed by amendment to the prior blog post.
Drug/Mental Health Courts Given Fiat Over Drug Conviction License Suspensions
The presiding judge of a drug court or mental health court will now be able to order the Georgia Department of Drivers Services to issue a limited permit to an accountability court participant even if the person is otherwise ineligible due to license suspensions arising from drug convictions. The judge will also be able to set the fees for such permit but not greater than the normal fee required for such services.
Georgia provides for driver's license suspensions for drug convictions even if the drug conviction did not involve the use of an automobile.
Probationers to Pay Costs of Drug Screening
Drug screening which has been routinely treated as part of the probation supervision fee will now be pay as you go, with the department being authorized to assess the costs of such testing against the probationer according to a schedule to be set by regulation.
Parole Board May Parole Expensive Prisoners
The legislature has authorized the Parole Board to grant medical reprieves to prisoners who are entirely incapacitated who suffer from a progressively debilitating terminal illness
Entirely incapacitated means the person requires assistance to perform two or more necessary daily life functions (eating, breathing, dressing, grooming, toileting walking or bathing) , is completely immobile. or has such limited physical or mental ability, strength or capacity that he or she poses an extremely low risk of physical threat to others or to the community.
A progressively debilitating terminal illness means a disease that cannot be cured or adequately treated and that is reasonably expected to result in death within twelve months.
Both elements must be present to authorize a medical reprieve.
Of course, end of life care for such a person is very expensive, and the reprieve allows such costs to be passed from the Department of Corrections to the already overburdened health care system.