CROOKSTON, Minn.-The Polk County Attorney's Office is seeking to impose harsh penalties beyond the scope of Minnesota sentencing guidelines for three men charged with trafficking fentanyl-containing pills in the Red River Valley.
Prosecutors have filed notices intending to seek aggravated sentencing against Benjamin David Gottberg, 19, Robert John Benson Powell, 20, and Cody Allen Stengl, 19, according to court records.
The three are charged with conspiracy to commit controlled substance crime in the first degree, a felony punishable by up to 30 years in prison, for their alleged involvement in selling pills containing fentanyl.
Minnesota sentencing guidelines call for judges to sentence a criminal offender based on the severity of the crime and criminal history. Those with a low criminal history score convicted of a first-degree controlled substance crime in Minnesota would typically be sentenced to four to six years in prison.
Prosecutors wishing to put someone away for longer than recommended need to file their intent to do so early in the legal process, according to Kelly Mitchell, executive director of the Robina Institute of Criminal Law and Criminal Justice at the University of Minnesota. It also adds an additional burden of proof for prosecutors.
"They have to prove facts over and above the elements of the crime," Mitchell said.
In the notices seeking aggravated sentences, Polk County Assistant Attorney Scott Buhler wrote the move was appropriate because the alleged crime constitutes a major controlled substance offense; involved the sale of misbranded pills containing fentanyl; resulted in at least one person overdosing and suffering serious bodily harm; and was committed as a party of three or more people.
"It's significant because it's hard to do," Mitchell said of receiving an aggravated dispositional departure.
It the accused parties accept a plea deal in the case, they would need to accept an aggravated sentence, Mitchell said.
Aggravated dispositional departures are fairly rare in Minnesota. In 2015, just 4.2 percent of state felony cases where guidelines called for a stay of punishment with no time behind bars received aggravated departures resulting in jail sentences, according to records from the Minnesota Sentencing Guidelines Commission. In Polk County, the rate was 11.5 percent.
In 2015, of 196 people sentenced for felonies in Polk County, 114 should have received a stay from imprisonment under state sentencing guidelines, but 13 of those 114 had an aggravated dispositional departure, according to state records.
Polk County Attorney Greg Widseth did not respond to requests for comment.
Attorneys representing the three men charged either declined to comment or did not respond to requests for comment.
Stengl has an omnibus hearing scheduled for May 16. He also faces three counts of controlled substance crime in the fifth degree, and one count of failure to affix a tax stamp, all felonies.
Powell will have his omnibus hearing May 25 and Gottberg's omnibus hearing is scheduled for May 30.