Court to Rule on Sentence Guidelines


St. Petersburg Times
November 7, 1995

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

The question, arising from a New Jersey cocaine case, illustrates 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 substantially assisted the prosecution, thereby winning him a break on some prison time, 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,'' said Patrick A. Mullin, lawyer for the defendant.

The case 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 assess individual defendants and to mete out evenhanded punishment.

Juan Melendez pleaded guilty in 1993 to conspiring to distribute cocaine after he tried to buy a large quantity of the drug from confidential government informants. Prosecutors told Melendez that if he snitched on other drug traffickers, they would file a motion urging a judge to give Melendez less time than required under the sentencing guidelines. He cooperated, and rather than get from 135 to 168 months under the guidelines, a judge gave him 120 months.

The judge refused to go lower than a mandatory 10-year sentence for the cocaine violation, saying that would have required a separate motion from the prosecutor.

The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that ""a literal reading'' of federal sentencing law gives a prosecutor the power to ask for a more lenient sentence based on a defendant's cooperation, but said the law also allows the prosecutor to control whether there's a departure from a statutory minimum sentence.

Other appeals courts have ruled differently, saying that once a prosecutor makes a so-called "substantial assistance" motion under the federal guidelines, the judge can give the defendant any sentence.

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