Justices to Decide Drug Sentencing Question: Another Cocaine Decision to Cover Search, Seizure


Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
November 7, 1995

The Supreme Court announced Monday that it would decide how much discretion a federal judge had to lower the sentence of a drug trafficker who was subject to a stiff "mandatory minimum" prison sentence but who cooperated with prosecutors.

The question, arising from a New Jersey cocaine case, points up an ongoing struggle between federal judges and prosecutors and goes to the heart of a growing controversy over national sentencing policies.

An appeals court ruled that although the defendant in this case had assisted the prosecution, federal law barred the judge from going below a 10-year statutory minimum sentence without a request from the prosecutor.

"As a result, the prosecutor, rather than the judge, has the real discretion of deciding the scope of sentencing," Patrick Mullin, lawyer for the defendant, told the justices.

The case taken Monday involves the intersection of federal guidelines, established by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, and "mandatory minimum" sentences, set by Congress. Together, these two efforts have sparked concerns over whether the quest for toughness has hurt judges' ability to mete out evenhanded punishment.

In another cocaine case, the Supreme Court agreed Monday to determine how difficult it should be for criminal defendants to win appeals aimed at barring use of evidence seized by police without a search warrant.

The justices agreed to hear an appeal in a Wisconsin case by two men who say cocaine seized from their car should not have been allowed as evidence against them.

Saul Ornelas and Ismael Ornelas-Ledesma were arrested at a Milwaukee motel on Dec. 11, 1992, after a sheriff's deputy spotted their car with a California license plate. A computer check showed it was registered to a known drug dealer.

Police said they got permission from the men to search the car. One officer said he noticed a loose door panel and removed it, finding a bag that contained cocaine.

Both men pleaded guilty to possession with intent to distribute cocaine, but challenged a federal judge's ruling that the seized cocaine could be used as evidence.

Ornelas was sentenced to five years and three months in prison, while Ornelas-Ledesma was sentenced to five years. The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals set aside the convictions and ordered a federal judge to reconsider whether there was probable cause to remove the door panel during the search. The judge reinstated the convictions, saying the removal of the door panel was supported by probable cause.

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