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High court won’t apply conditional release ruling retroactively

In the 2015 opinion State v. Her, the Minnesota Supreme Court held that the fact that a defendant was a risk-level-III offender at the time of the offense must be admitted by the defendant or found beyond a reasonable doubt by a jury before a court could add a 10-year conditional release to a sentence for failure to register.

Her followed a long line of cases starting with Apprendi v. New Jersey in 2000 that said that judges could not increase sentences without the support of the requisite factual findings.

Brian Meger, convicted of failure to register as a sex offender, tried to take advantage of the Her decision and have his sentence corrected because a judge had slapped the conditional release term on it without any process. He didn’t succeed.

Meger’s conviction and sentence were too old to change, the Supreme Court said.  Her announced a new rule of constitutional criminal procedure which could not be applied to a collateral review of Meger’s sentence, wrote Justice Anne McKeig for the court in State v. Meger. Justice Natalie Hudson recused, but the rest of the court was unanimous.

Meger conceded that his case was not pending on direct review when Her came down, but asked the court to apply it retroactively.

New rule

But Meger’s arguments didn’t fly at the Supreme Court.  It applied the retroactivity standard of Teague v. Lane, asking first whether the subject rule of constitutional criminal procedure is new or a predictable extension of existing doctrine. It had to be an old rule to benefit Meger.

A rule is new within the meaning of Teague if it breaks new ground, imposes a new obligation on government or was not dictated by precedent existing at the time the conviction became final. The precedent prong of the standard says that the test is whether reasonable jurists would have felt compelled by existing precedent to rule in the defendant’s favor.

Citing three supportive decisions by the Court of Appeals, the state argued that the unanimous decision of every appellate judge to consider the issue demonstrates that the court’s decision in Her was not compelled by precedent.

But Meger argued that Her is retroactive because it is an application of existing case law starting with Apprendi and Blakely v. Washington. But the Supreme Court also relied on Descamps v. U.S., decided in 2013, which said that when Apprendi carved out an exception for prior convictions from the submission-to-the-jury rule, it meant only the fact of a prior conviction.  Before Descamps, the court had made a fact-specific analysis for whether a fact beyond the recognition of a conviction could fall within the prior-conviction exception.

That meant, said the court, that the question of whether the risk level assigned to an offender falls within the prior-conviction exception was susceptible to debate among reasonable minds when Meger’s case became final in 2007.

“Without the benefit of Descamps and Her, and considering our holdings in [cases prior to Descamps], reasonable jurists at the time Meger’s amended sentence became final would not have felt compelled by existing precedent to rule in his favor on the question of whether an offender’s risk level falls within the prior-conviction exception. Accordingly, we conclude that Her is a new rule that is not retroactive to Meger’s amended sentence,” the court concluded.

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