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5-year instead of 3-year prison sentence applies to certain illegal drug makers

DAN TREVAS
Supreme Court
Public Information Office

Published: December 10, 2019

The Ohio Supreme Court recently resolved a conflict between two statutes regarding sentencing for repeat offenders who manufacture methamphetamine. One statute imposes a mandatory five-year prison term for the third-degree felony and another caps sentences for all but certain specified third-degree felonies at three years. The Court ruled that the five-year provision takes precedence and applies to an Adams County man’s sentence.
A divided Supreme Court ruled that a 2006 law classifying illegal drug manufacturing as a third-degree felony and setting certain penalties constituted a “special provision” in the Ohio Revised Code and prevailed over “general provisions” of a 2011 criminal sentencing overhaul, which reduced most third-degree felony sentences to three years.
Darian Pribble was convicted in Adams County in 2017 of the illegal assembly or possession of chemicals for the manufacture of methamphetamine. Because of two prior drug convictions, including one for drug manufacturing, Pribble was sentenced to five years in prison under a statutory “third-strike” provision. But citing the 2011 felony-sentencing overhaul, an appeals court found the maximum sentence Pribble could receive would be three years.
In the Supreme Court’s lead opinion, Justice Sharon L. Kennedy wrote that when two laws conflict, the special provision prevails over the general provision, meaning the specific sentencing statute for meth manufacturers applied to Pribble. The Court reversed the Fourth District Court of Appeals decision to reduce Pribble’s sentence and re-imposed the trial court’s five-year sentence.
Justices Judith L. French and Melody J. Stewart joined Justice’s Kennedy’s opinion.
Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor and Justice Patrick F. Fischer concurred in judgment only.
In separate written dissenting opinions, justices R. Patrick DeWine and Michael P. Donnelly stated that the Fourth District’s decision should stand because state statutes regarding third-degree felonies could both be understood as “special provisions.” When similar statutes conflict, the rule of lenity applies and the offender should receive the lesser of the two sentences, they maintained.
Updated Law Applied to Meth-Makers
Ohio’s criminal law prohibiting the manufacturing of controlled substances was revised in 2006 to add specific punishments for meth makers. R.C. 2925.041(A) elevated the punishment of a person who assembled or possessed the chemicals to make meth when that person had committed certain prior drug-related offenses. R.C. 2925.041(C)(1) specified that the penalty for such an offender be “one of the prison terms prescribed for a felony of the third degree that is not less than five years.” In 2006, state law imposed prison terms of one to five years for third-degree felonies.
Pribble was indicted in 2016 under R.C. 2925.041(A). Because he had a 2009 conviction of felony-drug manufacturing and a 2015 felony drug possession conviction, he met the “third strike” provision of R.C. 2925.041(C)(1) and was sentenced to five years in prison.
Pribble appealed to the Fourth District . That court stated that in a prior case, it found the 2006 “third strike” law conflicted with Ohio’s 2011 sentencing overhaul. In 2011, R.C. 2929.14(A)(3) was amended to specify that certain third-degree felonies can carry prison sentences up to 60 months, and that penalties for third-degree felonies not covered by that provision were limited to three-year prison terms. Illegal drug manufacturing was not one of the crimes the law indicated as qualifying for a five-year sentence. The appeals court ruled that the law only allowed for a sentence ranging from nine months to 36 months, and reduced Pribble’s sentence.
The Adams County prosecuting attorney appealed the Fourth District’s decision, and the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.
Court Finds Statutes Conflict
The Court’s lead opinion found that R.C. 2925.041(C)(1) and R.C. 2929.14(A)(3)(b) conflict. Justice Kennedy explained that under R.C. 1.51 when two statutes conflict—one general and one special that address the same subject matter—the special provision prevails as an exception to the general statute, “unless the general provision is the later adoption and the manifest intent is that the general provision prevail.”
The lead opinion stated R.C. 2925.041(C)(1) is the more specific of the two laws.
“It addresses sentencing for violations involving the manufacture of a specific drug, methamphetamine, by a narrow group of offenders, two-time felony drug-abuse offenders with at least one conviction or guilty plea involving the manufacture of a controlled substance,” the opinion stated.
The law also is more specific in that it prescribes a certain sentence — five years — as opposed to the sentencing options available under the general law, which is nine months to five years, Justice Kennedy’s lead opinion stated.
The opinion answered the question of why lawmakers did not include R.C. 2925.041(C)(1) in the list of other third-degree felonies that can receive a sentence of up to five years.
“Because that would defeat the purpose of instituting a mandatory five-year sentence for certain methamphetamine-production offenses—penalties for the offenses listed in R.C. 2929.14(A)(3)(a) have a range of discretionary sentences available that begin at 12 months,” the opinion stated. “Because it includes wide, discretionary sentencing ranges, R.C. 2929.14(A)(3) could not accommodate the General Assembly’s intent specifically regarding punishment for third-strike methamphetamine manufacturers—namely, to withhold from trial courts the discretion to impose a sentence of less than five years on two-time felony drug-abuse offenders convicted of this particular crime.”
‘Later in Time’ Clause Not Applicable
The rule for interpreting special and general laws states that, generally, the rule adopted later in time prevails. The lead opinion stated that provision did not apply because when lawmakers revised third-degree felony sentences in 2011, the same bill that made the changes, House Bill 86, also made a change to R.C. 2925.041(C)(1). It added an additional requirement of a second drug-related felony conviction for the steeper penalty to apply. Because a change also was made to the illegal drug-making law, the general provision was not adopted at a later time, the Court wrote.
The lead opinion also stated the rule of lenity did not apply. The rule appears in Ohio law as R.C. 2901.04(A) and states that “sections of the Revised Code defining offenses or penalties shall be strictly construed against the state, and liberally construed in favor of the accused.” The Court stated the rule is applied only after all other rules to interpret conflicts of statutes are applied. Because the special/general provision rule resolved the conflict, the Court does not need to use the rule of lenity.
Dissent Asserted Shortened Sentence Applies
In his dissent, Justice DeWine stated he was not convinced the specific/general rule in R.C. 1.51 resolved the conflict between the two laws.
Justice DeWine noted that in 2006, all third-degree felonies, including illegal assembly of drugs, could receive five-year prison sentences. But in 2011, lawmakers changed the felony-sentencing statute and reduced the maximum sentence for most third-degree felonies to 36 months. Under the new version of the statute, only certain third-degree felonies qualified for a sentence of up to five years, and illegal assembly was not included as one of those offenses. Because illegal assembly was not specified, Justice DeWine stated it was not clearly the intent of lawmakers to keep the five-year sentence.
Justice DeWine disagreed with the lead opinion that the felony-sentencing law was clearly a general provision. Because the statute specifies certain offenses that are eligible for a heightened sentence, it can also be viewed as a specific statute, he maintained. Justice DeWine contended that the “key language” in the illegal-assembly statute imposing a five-year sentence was left “untouched” when lawmakers reduced the sentences for third-degree felonies in 2011, so the new sentencing law should prevail as the later amendment.
Justice DeWine further explained that even accepting the lead opinion’s “questionable conclusions” that the specific/general rule required courts to apply the sentence in the illegal-assembly statute, that statute was unclear about what sentence was required. The illegal-assembly statute tells courts to impose “one of the sentences prescribed for a felony of the third degree that is not less than five years.” Justice DeWine explained that this language “made sense” when the felony-sentencing statute authorized a five-year prison term for all third-degree felonies. But because the new felony-sentencing law no longer permits a five-year sentence for the illegal-assembly offense, Justice DeWine concluded that it was not possible for a court to follow the conflicting instructions to impose both “one of the sentences prescribed” for third-degree felonies and “a sentence of not less than five years.”
Justice DeWine wrote that because none of the “traditional methods” for interpreting statutes provide a “satisfactory answer” about which sentence to apply, the rule of lenity requires that the court choose the option “that favors the criminal defendant.” He concluded that Pribble should receive the shorter sentence.
Lawmakers, Not Court, Must Fix Law, Dissent Stated
Justice Donnelly wrote that the legislature mistakenly created an irreconcilable conflict between the two laws, and the lead opinion resolves the matter by “contorting the nature of the conflict” between the two laws and contorting the text of the laws themselves.
In his dissent, Justice Donnelly explained that the third-strike provision in R.C. 2925.041(C)(1) is “not a stand-alone sentencing provision,” but rather is connected to the sentences allowed for third-degree felonies (“F3”) in R.C. 2929.14(A)(3) because it states that it is applied to “one of the prison terms prescribed for a felony of the third degree.” Because the third-strike provision must follow the rules of the F3 statute, the dissent disagreed with the lead opinion’s view that the third-strike provision prescribes a sentence of five years. Instead, all it prescribes is a minimum, and without using the F3 statute, the third strike provision “would impose a five-year minimum on nothing.”
Justice Donnelly explained the F3 law is divided into a “general” and a “specific” provision. The specific provision lists offenses such as vehicular homicide, sexual battery, and gross sexual imposition, as the third-degree felonies that are allowed to carry up to a 60-month sentence. The “third strike” provision of the illegal drug-making law is not included in the listed offenses. “The five-year minimum is not allowed by the general F3 provision, R.C. 2929.14(A)(3)(b), because the new general range allows sentences of up to only three years. And the five-year minimum is not allowed by the specific F3 provision, R.C. 2929.14(A)(3)(a), because the plain language of that provision prohibits the application of its 12-to-60-month sentencing range to offenses that are not listed,” he wrote.
Justice Donnelly also disputed the lead opinion’s contention that the rule of lenity is trumped by other rules to interpret the law.
“When it comes to criminal statutes, the rule of lenity is not always the last kid picked in gym class,” he wrote.
He added: “More importantly, we have a specific law in Ohio, R.C. 2901.04(A), that requires lenity for conflicting criminal laws no matter what the general rules of interpretation say.” The courts cannot apply a “judicial fix” to the conflict between the laws, he stated, and until the General Assembly fixes the conflict, the shorter sentence should apply.
The case is cited 2017-1758. State v. Pribble, Slip Opinion No. 2019-Ohio-4808.


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