Tag Archives: mandatory minimum

Man Sentenced to 110 Years for for Crash that Killed 4 in Colorado

Obviously, 110 years for an accident is a lot of time- it’s life in prison, even where four people died, the crash was due to an accident. The driver’s brakes failed, but the prosecutor was able to convict him on 27 counts for the actions he took after the mechanical issues arose. At one point, it was argued that he should have slammed into another truck, essentially committing suicide, as opposed to attempting the evasive maneuvers that resulted in the crash. The judge ultimately suggested that he would not have sentenced Rogel Aguilera-Mederos, 23, so harshly if he had not been required to do so by law.

This article indicates the most serious charges were the four counts of vehicular manslaughter for the people who passed away, but due to the violent crimes mandatory sentencing strictures, Colorado required harsher sentences on the assault charges than the manslaughter charges. The judge’s hands were tied, and had to sentence the six assault charges to 10 years each, and mandated that they be sentenced consecutively. Further, the 10 attempted assault charges each carry a mandatory five-year sentence, also required to be served consecutively. Add those up, and the judge had no choice but to enter a 110-year sentence.

For the remaining charges, including the manslaughter charges, the judge entered a sentence of 30 years in prison, to be served non-consecutively. The judge gave a sever sentence for the deaths that the jury had found Mr. Aguilera-Merderos culpable for, but did not seek a sentence that would surely extend beyond his lifespan. One can clearly extrapolate that he did not feel such a sentence was appropriate, but was bound to make it based on the laws in Colorado and the way the prosecutor chose to bring the charges. The judge even suggested that he was bound by law to the sentence, and that none of the victims (and families) who gave testimony suggested that a sentence beyond life was appropriate. The mandatory minimums resulted in a sentence that was beyond what the judge felt was just, but took away the discretion of the court to apply reason.

We have decried the issues with mandatory minimum sentences here before, and the issue is prevalent in Florida, as well. This reminds me of the Marissa Alexander assault case that resulted in a disproportionate sentence a few years ago- and ultimately lead to changes in Florida law. As a general rule, mandatory minimum sentences may be well intentioned, but where there is no discretion, will ultimately be used to an unjust end.

Fortunately, Colorado does have a provision that would permit the court to revisit these sentences after 6 months. Indeed, the judge referenced that the sentences would be revisited, suggesting that he may be open to a showing that would permit them to be reduced. Based on everything stated, that appears to be a likely, and just, result.

I also want to add that Colorado’s assault statute includes reckless behavior (“manifesting extreme indeference to the value of human life”), which is unusual. The crime of assault historically required the intent to place fear/strike/or injure the victim. So, even though Mr. Aguilera-Mederos did not manifest any intent, he was convicted and is now subject to the ‘violent’ crime sentencing structure. That suggests that the sentene may be of a type more sever that intended by the legislature, but certainly applicable under Colorado’s definition of assault. (Usually, behavior so reckless to endanger life is criminally punishable, but not usually as assault. That’s the type of language for manslaughter or reckless driving in most jurisdictions.)

Rogel Aguilera-Mederos

AG to Shift Policy to seek Harsher Penalties on Federal Drug Offenses

Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a new memo indicating a policy change for Federal Prosecutors to “charge and pursue the most serious, readily provable offense”. This overturns a policy memo issued by Eric Holder two years ago, which instructed prosecutors to avoid charging defendants with offenses that would trigger long mandatory minimum sentences on many drug offenses, in an effort to reduce non-violent drug offenders in our over-crowded prison system.

Prosecutors praised the decision as they enjoy having as much leverage as possible to prosecute offenders, and felt handcuffed by the Holder Memo. Critics feel this is a return to harsh mandatory sentences that do not serve their intended purpose. Under this policy, federal prosecutors would be seeking a 10-year mandatory sentence for a kilogram of heroin. In contrast, the State of Florida mandates a 15-year mandatory minimum sentence for possession of more than 14 grams of heroin (about half an ounce). And yes, there are extended prison sanctions for marijuana offenders, as well.

Federal Judge Helps Reduce a Sentence he was Forced to Impose

I’ve complained about the inequities of mandatory sentences, and the problems inherent in removing all judicial discretion from sentencing. When you impose blanket rules, you will end up with unjust results. The Federal system has already moved to roll back some of the mandatory sentences that have been imposed on drug offenses. Now, one federal judge took it upon himself to push the prosecutor’s office to drop some charges to allow a re-sentencing of an offender the judge had been forced to impose an extremely harsh sentence. Some might not have any sympathy for Francois Holloway, as he was undoubtedly guilty of the crimes, but the required stacking provisions meant he got sentences several times longer than his codefendants, and he wasn’t even the one carrying the firearm.

Mandatory sentences that eliminate discretion spawn cases like Marissa Alexander, who may be facing 60 years for firing a warning shot that harmed nobody. Very rarely to violent offenders have sympathetic stories with a chance of swaying the legislature, but hers is the rare exception that may affect positive change. There are not many judges like Judge Gleeson, who took it on his own initiative to push for a just sentence. Gleeson criticized the system further, blaming prosecutorial abuse for a “significant number of federal inmates who are serving grotesquely severe sentences.” I counter that the prosecutors are not abusing their power, merely exercising the power granted to them through harsh sentencing schemes. The legislators have told them, both on the federal level and in states like Florida, that they want harsh sentences: it’s literally mandated by law. Those draconian rules should be the ultimate focus of our concern: they merely provide the framework under which the criminal justice system operates.

Also, the buildup in lengthy incarceration is wildly expensive and taxing on our system. Ironically, crime rates have been dropping just as incarceration rates are finally coming down. Harsh sentences are probably not the most effective crime deterrent, and certainly not the most cost effective.

Florida May Dial Back Some Mandatory Drug Sentences

I just filed a post on how Florida could learn a lesson from California’s recent decision to reexamine some of its harsh minimum mandatory sentences. Well, somebody in Tallahassee has been thinking along the same lines, and making progress, as a bill was recently approved by the Senate Criminal Justice Committee to allow judges some discretion to deviate from the harsh minimum mandatory sentences for first time offenders who are not selling the drugs in their possession. The measure would allow courts to take into account that sometimes a lengthy prison sentence is not the best way to handle someone who is suffering addiction. Proponents point out that under current law, people can be sentenced as traffickers for possession less pills than many addicts take in a day.

Opponents argue that prosecutors have the discretion to change their charges for people who are not involved in dealing, according to the News-Press. However, as a practitioner who has worked on both sides of courtroom, that usually does not happen. Prosecutors are under great pressure to NOT cut deals, especially to drug traffickers. Tough-on-crime State Attorneys like Angela Corey make it a platform to prosecute to the fullest extent of the law, and often ignore the legislature’s expectation of discretion. The reality is that sometimes the people who get deals are serious drug dealers who snitch, while addicts without the connections end up holding the bag.

The opponents are urging the lawmakers not to do away with harsh sentences, but this bill would not do that. This bill would still allow the courts to punish the dealers and pushers accordingly, but allows judges the discretion to divert addicts away from exceptionally harsh mandatory sentences in some cases. It’s really a common-sense bill, and it’s hard to logically argue against it. Kudos to the legislature for examining alternatives to a one-size-fits-all harsh sentencing structure.

http://www.news-press.com/article/20130304/NEWS0120/130304044/Florida-capital-briefs-Minimum-mandatory-sentences-people-caught-RX-drugs-debated

Commentary on Juvenile Mandatory sentence rulings

I just wanted to share this article from Erwin Chemerinsky on the Supreme Court decisions regarding life sentences for juveniles.  I’ve discussed the topic in this space before.  Nothing earth shattering, but worth a read as a nice distillation of the direction of the law after these decisions.