With Liberty and Justice for Some: Against Mandatory Minimum Sentencing

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The case of Marissa Alexander is often used to criticize Florida’s “stand your ground” law juxtaposed against the highly publicized George Zimmerman case. The comparison of the cases through the prism of the “stand your ground” laws lacks merit due to the factual distinctions between the two cases. However, the cases highlight the injustice of the Florida penal structure when viewed from the perspective of sentencing. While George Zimmerman was acquitted for fatally shooting an unarmed Trayvon Martin during an altercation, Marissa Alexander received a mandatory twenty-year sentence for firing what she called a warning shot to fend off her abusive husband. The stark contrast between the sentencing of Alexander and Zimmerman is much more of an indictment against Florida’s mandatory minimum sentencing requirements under the state’s “10-20-life” statute, rather than its self-defense laws. The “10-20-life” statute mandates that certain felonies involving the use or attempted use of a firearm, receive a mandatory minimum sentence. Producing a firearm during the commission of certain felonies mandates a minimum 10-year prison sentence, firing a firearm mandates at least 20-years, and shooting someone mandates a minimum of 25 years to life regardless if the victim is killed. Because the “10-20-life” statute does not include any minimums for manslaughter, Alexander could have received as little as “time served” if she actually killed her husband.

Mandatory Minimum Sentencing laws set minimum sentencing requirements for certain crimes that judges cannot lower even for extenuating circumstances. A jury only deliberates on whether a defendant is guilty or not and therefore isn’t told about the mandatory minimum penalties. Informing jurors of the mandatory minim penalties for certain offenses could cause them to reach a very different conclusion.

Laws in regards to controlled substances are the most frequently abused infractions carrying mandatory minimum sentencing. Different mandatory penalties are given by drug weight, and are enhanced by other circumstances. Mandatory minimum sentencing places more culpability on couriers and street dealers instead of higher-ups such as cartel leaders. For instance, a drug-addicted “mule” faces mandatory prison time for transporting more than ten grams of heroin under Ohio law. The “king pin” of that operation faces optional prison for engaging in a pattern of corrupt activity, Ohio’s version of a federal RICO charge. Both offenses are the same level, felonies of the second degree under Ohio law. But one offense carries a substantially harsher penalty and unjustly so in the hypothetical presented. As a result, prisons end up teeming with nonviolent drug offenders who cost taxpayers billions of dollars.

There are many examples of the irrational impact of mandatory minimum sentencing laws. Jamel Dassel had on four different occasions moved crack and money between dealers for a total payment of $140. He received a mandatory 5-year prison sentence. Mandy Martinson was addicted to methamphetamines and lived with her boyfriend who was a dealer. The police charged both of them with conspiracy and illegal handgun possession. Her boyfriend testified against her and she received a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years, even though she obtained drug treatment and counseling and the judge stated that he does not have any particular concern that she will commit crimes in the future, Ms. Martinson cannot be eligible for parole under mandatory minimum laws. John Horner, who had no prior record of drug-dealing, received a 25-year mandatory minimum prison term for selling some of his own pain medication to an undercover informant. After he serves all 25 years, he will have served more prison time than the former Enron CEO who was found guilty for orchestrating one of the largest corporate fraud schemes in history.

Judge Paul G. Cassel, a U.S. District Court Judge in Utah, called mandatory sentencing egregious, unwise, unjust, cruel and unusual. “It is hard to explain why a federal judge is required to give a longer sentence to a first offender who carried a gun to several marijuana deals than to a man who murdered an elderly woman,” Judge Cassell said. “Section 924(c) punishes [the defendant] more harshly for crimes that threaten potential violence than for crimes that conclude in actual violence to victims. . . .” To make matters worse, the majority of the public supports a judge’s discretion to impose the appropriate sentence on a case-by-case basis.

Until there is reform, it is more important than ever for a defendant to find a good attorney who will pursue every available defense from negotiation to suppression of evidence and, if necessary, trial in order to avoid invoking mandatory sentencing. Creative attorneys the those in our office are challenging the constitutionality of the mandatory minimum law whether generally or specifically to the case. Arguments such as a lack of legislative intent to apply the minimum sentence to the particular case or individual, that the government failed to provide timely notice of the application of mandatory minimums or more appropriate charges that apply to the accused can mean the difference between probation and years in prison. The arguments against mandatory minimum sentencing laws must be made early in litigation and can be waived if not raised. Do not risk years of your life hoping to get lucky and beat mandatory minimum sentencing laws. Hire an attorney willing to go the distance in fighting for your freedom. Contact us today to schedule an appointment.

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