The Missouri Supreme Court has issued a decision on a case involving a flawed state law that could mean thousands of convictions and prison sentences will stay in place. A 2002 legislative amendment to the state’s criminal code included inconsistent language.
The amendment allowed for stealing to be classified as a felony infraction if “value” was an element of the crime. But the wording was problematic because the offense of stealing itself had no “value” attached to it in the code.
For roughly 14 years, people were charged and convicted of felony stealing until an attorney suspected there were inconsistencies in the law. That case involved Amanda Bazell, who was sentenced to concurrent 12-year prison terms for burglary and stealing firearms.
An August 2016 decision in State vs. Bazell by the Supreme Court finally identified the flaw in the statute. The court said “stealing” is “not defined to include, as an element of the offense, the value of property or services appropriated”.
After nullifying the offense of felony stealing last year, the high court Thursday said there will be no retroactive application of its 2016 decision, meaning all previous convictions and sentences for felony stealing will stay in place.
The court said its 2016 decision only applies to cases moving forward, except for those already pending on direct appeal.
After the 2016 decision, the state legislature changed the law’s language to include the offense of felony stealing. Those changes went into effect in January, so the court’s latest rendering may not be relevant in new cases.
But it does mean that possibly thousands of convictions and prison sentences during the 14-year period when the law was improperly applied will remain in place.
In its Decision released Thursday, the court referenced a determination by the U.S Supreme Court which held that a state Supreme Court isn’t required to make different interpretations of state laws retroactive, but can make its own decision at the state level.
The high bench held that Missouri defendants received sentences authorized by different interpretations of the statute and should not receive the benefits of retroactive application.
The high court’s Thursday rendering was a response to four defendants who previously pleaded guilty to felony stealing and wanted their penalties reduced under the court’s 2016 decision in State v. Bazell. The Supreme Court’s decision denying them relief was unanimous.