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Louisiana's habitual offender law seriously impacts defendants

A conviction for a drug offense can have major consequences for a Louisianan. From loss of personal freedom due to a lengthy prison sentence, to hefty fines, to a permanent felony record, a drug crime conviction can be life-altering. Additionally, a conviction can impact an individual years down the road if he or she is later charged with another drug crime.

Under Louisiana's habitual offender law, individuals convicted of multiple offenses, even if these offenses are non-violent in nature, may face a sentence of life without parole. A habitual offender law is sometimes referred to as a "three strikes" law. Application of a "three strikes" law can lead to the result of lengthy sentences. For example, if a person is convicted of a drug distribution charge after previous felony convictions, he or she might receive a life sentence, whereas a first offense drug distribution charge might only carry a five-year prison sentence.

The potential penalties will vary depending on whether a conviction is an individual's second, third or fourth or higher. Significantly, in Louisiana a subsequent offense shall not constitute a second, third, fourth or higher offense for sentencing purposes if more than 10 years have passed between when the alleged current offense was committed and the expiration of the maximum sentence for the previous conviction.

Louisiana's statute works in part as follows: for a third felony, if, for the crime at issue, a person would be punishable by less than a life sentence upon conviction, then he or she shall be sentenced to prison for no more than twice the longest possible sentence for a first conviction and not less than two-thirds of the longest possible sentence for a first conviction. However, if the alleged third felony meets certain other requirements, including if it is a violation of the Uniform Controlled Dangerous Substances Law, a person may be sentenced to life without the benefit of parole.

Of course, the best way to avoid entanglement with the habitual offender statute and its potential repercussions is for a defendant to have aggressive legal counsel defending him or her against a prosecutor seeking such a substantial course of action.

Source: Louisiana State Legislature, "RS 15:529.1," accessed Sep. 9, 2016

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