High Court to Hear Mandatory Sentence Dispute; At Issue Is Discretion of Federal Judges in Relaxing Terms for Cooperative Defendants

By Joan Biskupic, The Washington Post
November 7, 1995

The Supreme Court announced yesterday 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, 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 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," Patrick A. Mullin, lawyer for the defendant, told the justices.

The case of Melendez v. United States is the second important sentencing case the court has agreed to decide since it opened its 1995-96 term. The court also will hear a sentencing appeal from two police officers convicted in the March 1991 beating of Los Angeles motorist Rodney G. King in the case of Koon v. United States.

After former sergeant Stacey C. Koon and officer Laurence M. Powell were convicted by a federal jury of civil rights violations, they were sentenced to 30 months in prison. An appeals court, however, ruled that the sentencing judge improperly departed from federal guidelines and that the sentences should have been at least 70 months.

The case taken yesterday 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 him less time than required under the sentencing guidelines. Melendez cooperated, and rather than getting 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 U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit 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 that it 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 "substantial assistance" motion under the federal guidelines, the judge can give the defendant any sentence deemed fair.

Mullin argued on behalf of Melendez that "grave constitutional problems arise when the prosecutor is given the authority to sentence offenders."

He said the 3rd Circuit's approach violates the separation of powers among branches as well as a defendant's right to due process of law.

Allowing the prosecutor to determine not only when to depart from federal sentencing law but how far is "tantamount to a veto over the judge."

But Solicitor General Drew S. Days III countered in his filing with the court that because the prosecutor has the discretion to decide whether to seek any reduction in the defendant's sentence based on his cooperation, the prosecutor has the narrower discretion to decide whether to request a sentence below the statutory minimum.

Separately yesterday, the court agreed to hear another cocaine case, from Wisconsin, testing what standard appeals courts should use when reviewing allegations of illegal police searches.

The dispute arises from the conviction of two men who were charged after police, acting without a search warrant, found a package of cocaine concealed in their car door. A trial judge said the search was legal because the officers had probable cause to believe wrongdoing was underway; the judge noted that the two men (occupying a car with a California license place and checking into a motel at 4 a.m.) fit a drug courier profile and that the door panel appeared loose.

The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the convictions, finding that the judge did not commit "clear error."

Lawyers for the two men in Ornelas v. United States said the appeals court should have conducted a fresh review of the facts surrounding the search.

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