COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Ohio's top court ruled Monday that sentences for suspects caught with cocaine can be based on the weight of the entire amount, which could include filler material such as baking soda.
The Ohio Supreme Court's 5-2 decision overturned its own ruling late last year, which held that sentences must be based on how much pure cocaine the suspects had.
The rare reversal came after the Wood County Prosecutor's Office asked the court to reconsider its December decision.
The 2012 case stemmed from a drug sting near Toledo that netted an 11-year sentence for defendant Rafael Gonzales, convicted of buying more than 100 grams of cocaine from an undercover informant.
A key issue in the case was what the Legislature intended by defining cocaine as a drug by itself without adding "mixture" when it rewrote the law first in 1995 and again in 2011.
Former Justice Judith Ann Lanzinger, writing for the majority in last year's decision, said prosecutors failed to point to ambiguity in the law. As a result, the court must apply the law as written without figuring out what the Legislature meant, she said.
Lanzinger has since retired. Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor disagreed with last year's ruling and on Monday wrote the majority opinion reversing the previous decision.
State law as written punishes offenders for how much cocaine they possessed, said O'Connor.
The "amount of 'cocaine' clearly encompasses the whole compound or preparation of cocaine, including fillers that are part of the usable drug," she wrote on Monday.
O'Connor noted that fillers that are part of powdered cocaine aren't meant to be removed before the drug is used.
Justices Sharon Kennedy and William O'Neill dissented.
"The possession of baby formula, talcum powder, or baking soda does not pose the same risk to the public's health and safety as possession of cocaine does," O'Neill said.
Gonzales remains in prison. His lawyer criticized the ruling, saying the court essentially vetoed the votes of Lanzinger and retired justice Paul Pfeifer.
The decision also creates the potential of imbalanced punishment, since possessing 100 grams of cocaine is a first-degree felony with harsher penalties, added attorney Andy Mayle.
That means someone with 99 grams of cocaine could receive a lesser punishment than someone with 1 gram of cocaine and 99 grams of filler, he said.
"The Legislature intended that if you had more cocaine, you'd get a higher sentence," Mayle said. "The Legislature did not intend you to be punished for how much filler's in your cocaine."
Prosecutors across Ohio have said December's ruling could have delayed and shortened sentences for suspects caught with cocaine and forced costly changes upon law enforcement.
A bill moving through the General Assembly would allow fillers to be counted in the weight of the cocaine. It was unclear Monday the impact of the new ruling on that legislation.
Andrew Welsh-Huggins can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/awhcolumbus. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/andrew-welsh-huggins