Habitual Offender laws are some of the most common reasons nonviolent offenders are serving life terms in prison. Unfortunately, Mississippi is notorious for using them to their fullest extent.
The State is currently experiencing an incarceration crisis due, in large part, to the misuse of this law, causing long or even life sentences for nonviolent offenses.
This law can be used at the prosecutor’s discretion and can also:
- Mandate prison time which can make people ineligible for alternative incarcerations like probation.
- Require a maximum sentence or life sentence to be handed down.
- Deny the convicted an opportunity to earn their release through good time programs and good behavior.
- Require all prior felony convictions against a person to be counted no matter how much time has passed between them, the person’s age, or the severity of the previous convictions.
Because of this law, Mississippi has the second-highest imprisonment rate in the country.
Over 2,600 people are in prison today because of the habitual offender law, with over 960 people sentenced to more than 20 years and over 439 people sentenced to 50+ years of life.
Two hundred fifty people are serving 20+ years for a nonviolent offense, and most of these cases were convictions for drug-related crimes. Kendall Martin is, unfortunately, one of these people.
Kendall Martin’s Case
On March 27, 2013, Police officer Johns observed Kendall cross over a right-lane fog line. According to Johns, this initiated his usual procedure. He pulls up beside the driver to see if they had a seatbelt on and count the vehicle’s occupants. However, after doing this to Kendall, Deputy Johns observed him touching the line and getting close to it again. He claims this is why he decided to pull him over and initiate a traffic stop.
When Officer Johns walked to Kendall’s car, he said he smelled a heavy air freshener odor and a very faint smell of what he thought might be marijuana. In Officer John’s opinion, air fresheners are used to cover up the scent. This prejudice comes from his training and career on various drug task forces through the sheriff’s department.
Because of the heavy air freshener smell and Deputy John’s prejudiced belief that this person must be a drug trafficker, he ordered Kendall to get out of the car. At the same time, he gathered Kendall’s driver’s license info from the database.
Kendall told Johns that he was headed to Alabama, from Texas, where he visited with his cousin. Officer Johns was handed an insurance card for the rental vehicle, which Johns, who was already prejudiced into thinking Kendall was a drug trafficker, considered suspicious.
After the dispatcher told Officer Johns that Kendall’s license was valid, Officer Johns decided to search for evidence to validate his preconceived opinion that Kendall was a drug trafficker. The Officer informed him that he wanted to explore his vehicle due to the faint smell of marijuana.
Officer Johns states that he asked if he could search, to which Martin replied, “it doesn’t matter.” Before the Officer searched the vehicle, the Officer asked if he or his relative had been smoking in the car, if anyone besides Martin used the vehicle, and any weapons. Martin told Officer Johns that he drove to Austin in a rental vehicle and traded it the previous night before in Austin to go back in a larger SUV.
Officer Johns then states that he smelled of marijuana was more intense on the passenger side, and when he opened the trunk area, the odor was so strong it “nearly blew him away.”
Officer Johns claims that he found a duffle bag in the trunk and stated under oath that he could feel from the weight of the bag that it contained illegal narcotics. He then placed Martin under arrest before even opening the bag. When Officer Johns finally opened the duffel bag, he claimed that he found 9.9 pounds of marijuana in it.
Martin recorded a motion to suppress proof of the drugs discovered during the pursuit because the hunt and seizure disregarded his 4th Amendment freedoms.
Martin contended that Deputy Johns didn’t have sensible doubt to pull him over and propelled the stop by profiling him racially. He likewise battled that Officer Johns unlawfully stretched out the stop to look through the vehicle after the criminal traffic offense examination had finished up. At the concealment hearing, Officer Johns affirmed that he stopped Martin for reckless driving in the wake of noticing him cross the fog line twice, which he accepted comprised an infringement of Mississippi Code Section 63-3-1213. Notwithstanding, the preliminary court tracked down the adequate, reasonable justification for the stop. There was no nonsensical deferral in the hunt and, in this manner, denied the motion.
At the end of the trial, Martin was guilty of having possession, and he had more than a kilogram of marijuana to distribute. Since Martin had four previous drug convictions, the court sentenced Martin to sixty years with no potential for parole as a repeat offender.
Life After Conviction
Today, Kendall is 42 and has served 7 of his 60 years. His tentative release date is March 29, 2075. If he were to live to that date, he would be 96yrs old.
During his seven years in prison, he has been a model prisoner with the lowest classification score possible as an inmate because of his excellent behavior.
Kendall appealed his conviction. His appeal arguments were the following:
- He argued that the court made a mistake admitting the evidence because the initial traffic stop was not based on reasonable suspicion. Second, the stop was unreasonable in violation of Martin’s Fourth Amendment rights.
- Martin also argues that the State failed to prove that he was a habitual offender under Mississippi Code Section 99-19-81 and that the trial court erred in sentencing him as such.
The appeal was denied, and his conviction and sentence were confirmed.
However, not every judge hearing the appeal agreed. Judges Kitchens, Waller, and King agreed that an injustice was done during his trial. Judge Kitchens wrote,
“Officer Jason Johns’ traffic stop of Kendall Martin was not, in fact, based upon probable cause. Therefore, the trial court erred in denying Martin’s motion, and I respectfully dissent.” Presiding Justice Kitchens
“Here, Officer Johns testified that he is “assigned to a specialized drug task force with the Rankin County Sheriff’s department” and that he had “been doing drug interdiction work pretty much my entire career.” He stated that “drug interdiction” involves enforcing traffic laws and apprehending “criminals during that process.” But I, as was Judge Stewart, am skeptical that Officer Johns’s purpose that day was to catch violators of the careless driving statute. Instead, Officer Johns noticed a Chevrolet SUV with Texas plates “[run] over the fog line” once, determined the vehicle was driven by an African-American man, and admittedly pulled up beside the vehicle to see “if he’s wearing a seatbelt.” Because the vehicle’s occupant was lawfully belted, Officer Johns waited until the vehicle got “real close” to the fog line before initiating a stop. The entire exercise was undertaken solely to manufacture a pretextual excuse to stop the vehicle.” Presiding Justice Kitchens
“While law enforcement efforts to curb trafficking through the State of Mississippi are necessary and laudable, they must be performed in a manner consistent with the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution and Article 3, Section 23, of the Mississippi Constitution. Because Officer Johns did not have an objective, reasonable basis for stopping Martin’s vehicle and because the trial court should have granted the motion to suppress the fruits of the illegal search, I would reverse and render his conviction.” Presiding Justice Kitchens
WALLER, C.J., AND KING, J., JOIN THIS OPINION.
Habitual offender laws have done nothing but destroy nonviolent offenders’ lives, done irrefutable damage to the lives of their family members, has contributed to the overpopulated prison system, and cost the states that use them millions.
Let’s look at some statistics:
75% of people serving 20+ years through habitual sentences are black men, even though they make up just 13% of the State’s population.
There are currently 78 people in prison serving life sentences for habitual offender offenses involving drug crimes that are collectively serving 4,668 years in prison at the cost of nearly $70 million to state taxpayers.
People who support long sentences argue that it improves public safety by deterring crime and keeping “dangerous” people off the streets.
Research has proven this wrong with the following findings:
- Long prison sentences are ineffective as a crime control measure
- Prison sentences for many offenses can be shortened with no effect on public safety
- People are far less likely to break the law as they age.
What is proven with the use of habitual offender laws is that:
- More than half of the people convicted using this law are the primary financial support for their families, causing severe challenges for the family members left behind.
- When convicted is a mother, her children often suffer the most by being taken from their homes and usually placed in the state foster system.
Mississippian public opinion over the offender law is too harsh and doesn’t make sense financially or morally.
A house bill, House Bill 1024, talked about restricting the habitual offender sentencing to people who received a third felony conviction within 15 years. This bill would potentially give some people the opportunity for parole after meeting other parole requirements. However, Mississippi failed to pass it.
The Governor of Mississippi has made it public that he has no current plans to look at clemency cases and has passed them along to the Mississippi parole board. As a result, the Mississippi Parole Board has verified that clemency applications are piling up, waiting for Governor Tate Reeves to order them to be looked at.
If you would like to learn more about Kendall, head over to his petition on Change.org.