SANTA FE, N.M. (KRQE) – The state Supreme Court announced Thursday in a press release they dropped one of a prisoner’s two convictions for possession of a deadly weapon. They did this because the punishments for violating the same law violated constitutional double jeopardy rights.
The Court determined unanimously that Milo Benally’s convictions were based on a “single course of conduct” rather than two separate, distinct acts. Under the facts in Benally’s case, the justices concluded that the Legislature did not intend for multiple punishments of the law against possession of a deadly weapon by a prisoner.
Benally received a sentence of 34 years for possession of two makeshift weapons: 9 for a basic sentence for each violation and an additional eight for each conviction as sentencing enhancements as he was considered a repeat offender.
One weapon was a razor blade with a handle formed from a folded playing card and the other was a piece of plastic mop handle with a sharpened end. Both were found in Benally’s bunk during a 2015 shakedown at the San Juan County Detention Center.
The Court clarified a two-step approach for judges to follow in the future in analyzing double jeopardy questions when a defendant receives more than one sentence for violating the same state law. In an opinion by Justice Barbara J. Vigil, the Court made clear that “the legislative purpose and intent in enacting the statute is controlling to this analysis” of whether the law allows multiple punishments to be imposed under the specific circumstances of a case.
For Benally’s case, the justices were required to determine the number of offenses and punishments to allow – a legal question about the intended “unit of prosecution.” The Court found that the state law prohibiting prisoners form possessing a deadly weapon was “insurmountably ambiguous” on whether the Legislature intended to punish Benally “for his ‘entire course of conduct’ in possessing two deadly weapons while incarcerated” or whether separate punishments were intended for each weapon he possessed. This is a nearly 60-year-old statute.
The press release states the Court said judges are to consider a range of matters including the statue’s “wording, structure, legislative history, legislative purpose” as well as the potential sentence authorized by the law. The decision by the state Court of Appeals was affirmed by the high court and the case was sent back to the Eleventh Judicial District Court in San Juan County to have one of Benally’s two convictions dropped and to adjust the sentence.