San Diego Defense Lawyer On Mandatory Minimum Sentences
Yesterday, I sat through a long calendar in San Diego federal court, the United States Distict Court for the Southern District. In the middle of a routine sentence hearing, I was surprised to hear a judge, who is widely not considered to be “defendant friendly”, criticize mandatory minimum sentences. Before he sent a defendant in a drug case off to jail for the routine ten year minimum applicable to most federal drug offenses, he remarked, “I don’t have any power anymore.” Gesturing at the prosecutor’s table, he remarked, “these guys have all the power.” Sadly, because of the many mandatory minimum sentences in federal court, he was right.
As a San Diego defense lawyer, I am faced with the heartbreak of mandatory minimum sentences every day. In federal drug cases, most defendants are automatically facing sentences without parole of ten years imprisonment. There is a narrow exception for mandatory minimum sentences, “safety valve“, but even one minor prior criminal offense, for instance one driving while intoxicated or driving without a proper license, can trigger the mandatory sentence.
Mandatory sentences subvert justice for several reasons. First, they de-humanize a criminal defendant. They lump every criminal defendant in the same category regardless of their background and the circumstances of a crime. A person who plays a very minor role in a drug conspiracy, such as simply driving with someone to the scene may receive the same ten year sentence as the person who arranged for the sale of drugs. The sentences do not take into consideration the defendant’s family background, potential for rehabilitation and remorse.
Second, mandatory sentences become a powerful and unfair weapon for prosecutors. They can bring charges that carry a long mandatory sentence and then allow a defendant to plea bargain to a non mandatory minimum charges. It is common for prosecutors to charge defendants with ten year mandatory drug offenses and the allow them to plead to a “telephone count”, which carries a sentence of between zero and four years imprisonment. I have had clients whom I believe to be innocent try to plead guilty just to keep from receiving the brunt of a mandatory sentence.
Finally, the District Court judge was correct. Mandatory sentences tie judges hands so they cannot be fair. Congress has mandated that judges only give a sentence that is long enough but not greater than necessary to promote justice. Mandatory sentences require the judge to disregard their obligation by Congress and their oath of fairness and give sentences that are shockingly disproportionate and unfair. Two Disrict Court Judges in San Diego resigned many years ago when the sentencing laws were modified.
The laws on the state side are no better. Every year new laws are being enacted that take away judicial discretion. Most of these laws deal with the possession of weapons, sex offenses, and gang related behavior. A person can sell drugs and have an old firearm in their home that they have never used and be facing lengthy mandatory minimum sentences becuase of the possession of the weapon. Prosecutors love to charge minority individuals with gang related conduct not becuase of the nature of the offense but because the defendant grew up in an environment where almost everybody knows someone who is in a gang. Defendants are encouraged to enter pleas, guilty or not, to avoid the jaws of these lengthy mandatory minimum terms.
At the Law Offices of Russell Babcock, we dislike mandatory minimum sentences even more than this District Court Judge. We will guide you through the penalties for the charged conduct and help you, the client, make decisions how you want to handle your case. And we will never encourage an innocent person to plead guilty just to escape a mandatory minimum sentence.
Not long ago, I had a client who was facing a mandatory sentence of fifty years, if convicted. He chose to take no offers and he won at trial. Yesterday, I had a client who was facing a mandatory sentence of ten years visit me in his office. He wisely chose to turn down a “four year deal.”
At the Law Offices of Russell S. Babcock, we are here to help you explore all the options in your case, and whenever possible escape the jaws of a mandatory minimum sentence.