ANNAPOLIS, SEPT. 21 -- The Maryland Court of Appeals today upheld a state law that classifies daytime housebreaking as a violent crime, punishable by a life sentence without parole for chronic criminals convicted of more than three offenses.
The unanimous ruling by the state's highest court upholds a so-called habitual-offender statute similar to those used in about 10 other states.
Those laws, designed to remove repeat offenders from society, have provoked sharp debate from critics who assert they sometimes result in harsh sentencing out of proportion to the crime.
The court ruled in the case of Drexel Otto Davis, 48, of Baltimore, who was convicted in 1985 of breaking into a house and stealing a jacket and a bucket of coins worth about $100.
Davis had three previous housebreaking convictions since 1966 in which he had not injured anyone and had stolen goods worth less than $1,000, according to his lawyer, Gary S. Bernstein.
Davis argued that the life sentence was excessive for his crimes.
In one 1981 housebreaking, Bernstein said, Davis was charged with taking a chocolate chip cookie and some salami.
Davis's life sentence had been overturned by the Court of Special Appeals, which found the punishment excessive.
But in reinstating Davis' sentence today, the Court of Appeals declared that "the trifling value of some of the property taken by Davis" was not relevant. Daytime housebreaking has been classified by the Maryland legislature as a violent crime since 1982, the court said, because of "the risk of personal harm and the right to be free of intrusion."
The U.S. Supreme Court, in a 1983 South Dakota case, found that in some instances chronic offender laws result in cruel and unusual punishment.
But the Maryland court said Davis' crimes were more serious than those in the South Dakota case. Daytime housebreaking was added by the General Assembly to the state's list of violent crimes, which includes murder, rape, mayhem and maiming and armed robbery.
"Even if the housebreaker seeks to avoid encountering another person in the dwelling," the court said in a ruling written by Judge Lawrence Rodowsky, "the housebreaker may be mistaken in believing the dwelling is temporarily unoccupied, or the housebreaker may be surprised by the return of an occupant. We need not look beyond our recent cases for examples of crimes which started as housebreakings and which ended as murders for which the death penalty was imposed."
The court also argued that Davis' sentence was not out of proportion with those given in many other states.
Life without parole can be imposed after three housebreaking convictions in Delaware, the court noted, and after four in Nevada and South Dakota.
In addition, the court ruling stated, life imprisonment can be imposed after three housebreaking convictions in the District, Idaho, New York, South Carolina and West Virginia, after a second conviction in Utah, and after a first conviction in Texas.
"This guy lived in a little place in Baltimore City," Bernstein said. "He was an alcoholic and, when he got drunk, he was prone to break into a window and apparently take something."
Now, Bernstein added, the only way Davis will get out of the Maryland Penitentiary "is in a body bag."
Assistant Maryland Attorney General Richard Rosenblatt, who argued the state's case before the court, could not be reached for comment today.