Friday, January 4, 2013

prosecutors gain enormous power from mandatory minimum sentencing

Mandatory minimum sentencing gives prosecutors nearly absolute power to convict. Reason's Jacob Sullum writes about a drug offender caught between the mandatory minimum and a plea agreement but sex offenders are treated the same.
Stretching Williams' sentence from mindlessly harsh to mind-bogglingly draconian, each of those marijuana counts was tied to a charge of possessing a firearm during a drug trafficking offense, based on guns at the Helena grow operation that Williams supervised and at Flor's home in Miles City, which doubled as a dispensary. Federal law prescribes a five-year mandatory minimum for the first such offense and 25 years for each subsequent offense, with the sentences to run consecutively. 
Consequently, when Williams was convicted on all eight counts, he faced a mandatory minimum sentence of 80 years for the gun charges alone, even though he never handled the firearms cited in his indictment, let alone hurt anyone with them. This result, which federal prosecutors easily could have avoided by bringing different charges, was so absurdly disproportionate that U.S. Attorney Michael Cotter offered Williams a deal 
Drop your appeal, Cotter said, and we'll drop enough charges so that you might serve "as little as 10 years." No dice, said Williams, still determined to challenge the Obama administration's assault on medical marijuana providers. But when Cotter came back with a better offer, involving a five-year mandatory minimum, Williams took it...
Chris Williams' biggest mistake was in choosing to go to trial. Three of his partners in his marijuana operation were also convicted though they chose not to go to trial.
Tom Daubert, one of Williams' partners in Montana Cannabis, which had dispensaries in four cities, pleaded guilty to maintaining drug-involved premises and got five years of probation. Another partner, Chris Lindsey, took a similar deal and is expected to receive similar treatment. Both testified against Williams at his trial last September. 
Sentencing guidelines allow for a more favorable sentence if a defendant provides "substantial assistance" to the prosecutor. Daubert and Lindsey did that by testifying against Williams. 

The fourth defendant?
Williams' third partner, Richard Flor, pleaded guilty to the same charge but did not testify against anyone. Flor, a sickly 68-year-old suffering from multiple ailments, died four months into a five-year prison term.
These men were also caught between state laws, under which their business was legitimate, and federal law where it was not.

Keep in mind that this happens routinely. Prosecutors can use the mandatory minimums as leverage, putting nearly anyone in prison. Few cases go to trial; defendants take the plea in the vast majority of cases. Because most cases don't go to trial, prosecutors rarely have to prove their case.

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