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According to the Supreme Judicial Court in Massachusetts, the language of the sentencing statute for a home invasion conviction is patent: The phrase “not less than twenty years” prescribes a minimum sentence. In a ruling released Wednesday, the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) agreed with the prosecution’s argument, finding the language in the statute and the Legislature’s meaning unambiguous. The statute reads: “[A home invasion offender] shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for life or for any term of not less than twenty years.” In the decision, Commonwealth v. Marc Brown, the high court ruled that a Suffolk Superior Court judge properly imposed a sentence of “20 years to 20 years and one day” for Brown’s home invasion conviction. The case came before the SJC after the Appeals Court vacated the sentence imposed by Superior Court Judge Nonnie S. Burnes, sending the matter back to the Superior Court for re-sentencing. The prosecution then appealed to the SJC. Brown, the defendant, challenged the trial judge’s interpretation of the statute, arguing that the statute provides the option of imposing a life sentence or “an indeterminate sentence with not less than twenty years and a minimum number of not less than one year.” According to the SJC decision, Brown contended that the “not less than 20 years” provision “establishes the minimum number of years the judge could impose as the higher (maximum) number of years of the sentence.” Neither Suffolk County Assistant District Attorney Jane Sullivan nor defense attorney Edward B. Gaffney of Wayland could be reached for comment before deadline. In coming to the ruling, the SJC examined the Legislature’s approach to determining minimum sentences for various crimes. Although some statutes allow for judicial discretion in sentencing, the language in the home invasion statute clearly eliminates any judicial discretion in imposing a sentence of less than 20 years, the SJC ruled. The SJC found that the home invasion sentencing provision is an example of “the Legislature select[ing] a specific minimum number rather than giving total sentencing discretion to the sentencing judge. The Legislature has, in our view, clearly chosen one means of establishing a mandatory minimum sentence,” the justices wrote. This conclusion is “supported by the fact that the ‘life’ or ‘not less than’ language in other statutes has been construed similarly as imposing a mandatory minimum sentence,” according to the decision. In rejecting Brown’s argument, the SJC wrote: “The defendant’s interpretation is not consistent with the traditional interpretation of the numerous other criminal statutes with similar sentencing provisions.” The SJC also noted that the Legislature recognized the seriousness of a home invasion and presumably intended that a significant minimum sentence be imposed. “The defendant’s proposed interpretation would be contrary to this intent, because it would permit one convicted of home invasion to be sentenced to as little as one year, making him eligible for parole after that period,” the justices wrote.

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