Watershed Sentencing Case

September 13, 2004

Here's a story from NYT about a drug case that gets to core of sentencing guidelines and mandatory minimums debate. A guy in Salt Lake City got 63 years for selling pot (first offense).

Excerpts:

  • "It would appear effectively to be a life sentence," the
    judge, Paul G. Cassell of Federal District Court there,
    wrote in a request to the prosecution and the defense for
    advice about whether he has any choice but to send the man
    to prison forever."
  • Judge Cassell, a brainy, conservative former law professor,
    surveyed the maximum sentences for other federal crimes.
    Hijacking an airplane: 25 years. Terrorist bombing
    intending to kill a bystander: 20 years. Second-degree
    murder: 14 years. Kidnapping: 13 years. Rape of a
    10-year-old: 11 years."
  • "The Angelos case may provide a glimpse of the future. The
    constitutionality of federal sentencing guidelines was
    called into doubt by a Supreme Court decision in June, but
    that thinking does not extend to laws that set mandatory
    minimum sentences."

Long Term in Drug Case Fuels Debate on Sentencing
September 12, 2004
By ADAM LIPTAK

Weldon H. Angelos, a 25-year-old producer of rap records,
will be sentenced Tuesday in federal court in Salt Lake
City for selling several hundred dollars in marijuana on
each of three occasions, his first offenses. He faces 63
years in prison.
Laws that set mandatory minimum sentences require 55 of the
63 years because Mr. Angelos carried a gun while he sold
the drugs.
"It would appear effectively to be a life sentence," the
judge, Paul G. Cassell of Federal District Court there,
wrote in a request to the prosecution and the defense for
advice about whether he has any choice but to send the man
to prison forever.
Judge Cassell, a brainy, conservative former law professor,
surveyed the maximum sentences for other federal crimes.
Hijacking an airplane: 25 years. Terrorist bombing
intending to kill a bystander: 20 years. Second-degree
murder: 14 years. Kidnapping: 13 years. Rape of a
10-year-old: 11 years.
He noted that Mr. Angelos would face a far shorter sentence
in the courts of any state. In Utah, prosecutors estimate
that he would receive five to seven years.
The Angelos case may provide a glimpse of the future. The
constitutionality of federal sentencing guidelines was
called into doubt by a Supreme Court decision in June, but
that thinking does not extend to laws that set mandatory
minimum sentences.
If the court strikes down the guidelines this fall, as many
expect, judges will have much greater discretion, to the
dismay of many prosecutors and politicians who worry that
judges are not tough enough on crime.
Sentencing guidelines are set by the United States
Sentencing Commission, an agency of the judicial branch.
The guidelines were intended to limit judges' discretion
without locking them into one-size-fits-all sentences.
Mandatory minimums, in contrast, are enacted by Congress
and are part of the criminal code.
"The guidelines always have some sort of escape," said
Jeffrey B. Sklaroff of the New York office of Greenberg
Traurig, a law firm that represents 29 former judges and
prosecutors who filed a brief in support of Mr. Angelos in
July. "A mandatory minimum means what it says: it is
mandatory, and it is a minimum."
In Mr. Angelos's case, the drug offenses and related
money-laundering convictions, for using drug money to buy a
car and pay his rent, could subject him to eight years in
prison. The mandatory minimums are for the additional
offense of carrying a gun while selling drugs. Mr. Angelos
carried a Glock pistol in an ankle holster when he sold
marijuana on two occasions, though he did not brandish or
use it. More guns were found in a briefcase and a safe at
his home.
According to the indictment, some of the guns were stolen,
though Mr. Angelos was not accused of being the thief.
Judge Cassell is required to add five years for the gun in
the first deal and 25 years each for the second deal and
the guns found at his home.
The Supreme Court will decide whether to strike down the
sentencing guidelines after it hears arguments in October,
and some legislators are already signaling their preference
for more mandatory minimums if the guidelines are deemed
unconstitutional.
At a hearing in July on legislation that would increase
drug sentences, Representative Howard Coble, Republican of
North Carolina, said, "It seems clear that mandatory
minimums may well take on added importance in assuring
appropriate sentences for serious federal crimes as a
result of the Supreme Court's actions."
Ronald H. Weich, a former counsel to the Senate Judiciary
Committee who opposes mandatory minimums, said they had a
political constituency. "There is a real danger," Mr. Weich
said, "that we're heading back to mandatory minimums if
guidelines are unconstitutional."
The Justice Department supports mandatory minimums, said
Monica Goodling, a spokeswoman.
"Tough but fair mandatory minimum sentences take habitual
lawbreakers off the streets, lock up the most dangerous
criminals and help ensure the safety of law-abiding
Americans," Ms. Goodling said. "Since these common-sense
policies were created, we've seen crime plummet to a
30-year low. The public, the Congress and presidents of
both parties have supported mandatory minimums for a simple
reason - they work."
In June, just days after the Supreme Court's decision in
Blakely v. Washington, which struck down the sentencing
system of Washington State, Judge Cassell was the first
judge to say the logic of the decision required the voiding
of the federal sentencing guidelines as well. In the
Angelos case, he wrote that he took "no joy" in the
"potentially cataclysmic implications" of that reasoning.
In Blakely, the Supreme Court held that all facts that
could lead to longer sentences must be found by a jury. But
the Washington law, like the federal guidelines, let judges
make some such findings.
"There has not been a single case in the history of
American criminal law with the immediate impact of this
one," Frank O. Bowman, an Indiana University expert in
sentencing law, said of Blakely. "The United States Supreme
Court has essentially shut down the criminal justice system
or at least put it in a state of suspended animation."
Still, whatever the Supreme Court decides about how Blakely
applies to the federal guidelines, cases like Mr. Angelos's
will not be directly affected, for two reasons: a jury did
find the facts about the guns he possessed, and another
Supreme Court case says judges may find the facts
supporting minimum sentences.
Mr. Angelos's lawyers and the 29 former judges and
prosecutors argue that the mandatory sentence in his case
amounts to a cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the
Eighth Amendment. The Supreme Court has not been receptive
to similar arguments in cases involving three-strikes laws
and a first-time offender given life without parole for
large-scale cocaine distribution.
However, Judge Cassell has drawn a distinction in his
academic work between the guidelines and mandatory
minimums. In a Stanford Law Review article in April, he
wrote that "the federal sentencing guidelines, while tough,
are not 'too' tough." But mandatory minimums, he wrote,
"can lead to possible injustices."
In court papers, prosecutors said Mr. Angelos "trafficked
in hundreds of pounds of high-grade marijuana,"
"distributed cocaine and synthetic narcotics" and
"affiliated himself with a violent street gang." These
assertions, however, were not proved to a jury.
Last year, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy of the United States
Supreme Court told the American Bar Association that "in
too many cases, mandatory minimum sentences are unwise and
unjust." The association appointed a commission, which
recently issued a report urging the abolition of such
sentencing.
"There are real economic and human costs," said Douglas A.
Berman, an Ohio State University expert on sentencing law,
"to putting everyone away for as long as humanly possible."
Melodie Rydalch, a spokeswoman for Paul M. Warner, the
United States attorney in Salt Lake City, said his office
had no comment on the Angelos case. In general, Ms. Rydalch
said, "we will continue to enforce mandatory minimums so
long as Congress tells us to."

http://www.nytimes.com/2004/09/12/national/12sentence.html?ex=1096034296&ei=1&en=957e459fb6cc3bf4

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