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How Far Does A Court’s Discretion Stretch?


In many states, including Maryland, a court sentencing a defendant has very broad discretion. However, that discretion is not limitless, and it is subject to review and modification if changes happen, either in an individual case or in state or federal law. The Court of Special Appeals recently handled a case dealing with a court’s discretion in modifying sentences, and just how far it goes.

Court of Special Appeals Requires Remand

In 2012, Edgar Sayles was convicted by a Washington County jury of distribution of cocaine. Since Mr. Sayles had committed crimes in the past, he was sentenced as a “subsequent offender,” which meant receiving a mandatory minimum sentence of 40 years’ imprisonment without the possibility of parole. However, four years later, the Maryland legislature passed the Justice Reinvestment Act (JRA), an expansive law aimed to reform the state’s justice system. One major part of the JRA was to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences on certain “controlled dangerous substance felonies,” and to permit those already serving such sentences to seek modification.

With the passage of the JRA, Mr. Sayles filed the appropriate petition to seek modification of his 40-year sentence. Whether or not to approve modification (decrease) in a sentence rests on two factors: (1) whether or not the mandatory minimum sentence being retained would “result in substantial injustice” to the defendant; and (2) whether or not denying the modification is necessary for the protection of the public – in other words, if the defendant is deemed to pose a danger to the public, modification of their sentence is unlikely.

Mr. Sayles’ petition for modification was denied at a hearing in the Circuit Court of Washington County, in which the court stated that there “was no hardship” and that “[the court believes] that distributing poison basically is a violent act” as reasons for the denial. As it stood, Mr. Sayles would have been out of options after that, but in 2020, the case of Brown v State was handed down by the Court of Appeals, which clarified certain provisions in the JRA. In Brown, four questions of law were certified to the Court of Appeals to be answered, some of which had relevance to Mr. Sayles’ appeal.

Essentially, the Brown court interpreted the JRA to state that a court may modify a mandatory minimum sentence under its aegis, even if the state does not consent, and even if the defendant agreed to a binding plea agreement (a type of plea agreement used in Maryland that has similarities to a contract) or waived the right to seek sentence modification. In the initial hearing on Mr. Sayles’ modification petition, the court did not make any specific findings about whether the state had met its burden or not with regard to the JRA – which means that a ruling on Mr. Sayles’ sentence cannot be reached, because not all the required factors were considered. The Court of Special Appeals ordered the case remanded to the Circuit Court for reconsideration under the Brown standard.

Contact A Maryland Criminal Defense Attorney

If you have been sentenced under a mandatory minimum, you need to be aware of your rights, and be aware that you are entitled to adjudication of your claim on its merits, rather than simply on stereotypes and feeling. The Maryland criminal attorneys at the firm of Henault & Sysko Chartered understand the high stakes in these types of cases, and will work hard to ensure your rights are protected in court. Call our offices at (410) 768-9300 to schedule a consultation.


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