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Sentencing: US Supreme Court Lets Stand Pot Dealer's 55-Year Mandatory Minimum Sentence

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #464)
Drug War Issues
Politics & Advocacy

The US Supreme Court Monday refused to hear an appeal of a 55-year mandatory minimum sentence for a Salt Lake City marijuana dealer who carried a pistol in his boot during his transactions. The decision not to hear the case disappointed observers in the legal community who hoped it would lead to a constitutional review of mandatory minimum sentencing laws.

Weldon Angelos was a would-be rap music empresario and father of two children who also peddled pot. He was indicted on multiple marijuana distribution charges and, because of the gun in his boot, multiple charges of possession of a weapon during the commission of a felony. There is no evidence Angelos ever shot or killed anyone with his weapon, or even brandished it. But federal law requires a mandatory five-year sentence for a first weapons count, followed by mandatory 25-year sentences for each additional count.

Angelos refused a plea deal and was found guilty of the marijuana dealing counts and three weapons counts. When sentencing Angelos to the mandatory minimum 55 years in 2002, US Circuit Court Judge Paul Cassell issued a lengthy opinion protesting the injustice of sentencing the 26-year-old to a life behind bars.

Angelos appealed, but in a January 2005 opinion, the 10th US Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver rejected his argument that his sentence violated the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishments. When he appealed to the Supreme Court, Angelos was joined by more than 140 top former justice officials from across the country, including four former US attorneys general, a former FBI director and other former federal judges and prosecutors who sided with him in a friend-of-the-court brief filed with the court in October.

By refusing to take the case, the Supreme Court has signaled that it views decades-long prison sentences for nonviolent marijuana dealers as okay, and that wasn't okay with a substantial segment of the legal community. "We are very disappointed that the Supreme Court refused to hear this case in which a low-level marijuana offender received what is effectively a life sentence," said Jeff Sklaroff, an attorney representing the group that filed the brief, in remarks reported by the Deseret News.

Angelos' attorneys were similarly unhappy. "We are extremely disappointed that the Supreme Court did not agree to hear the case," University of Utah law professor Erik Luna said. "This case presented a great opportunity for the Supreme Court not only to correct this miscarriage of justice but also to clarify the scope of the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment."

"We hope that Congress will realize the injustice caused by its mandatory-minimum scheme and dispose of it without the court having to intervene," said attorneys Troy Booher and Michael Zimmerman, a former chief justice of the Utah Supreme Court, in a statement Tuesday.

But federal prosecutors were happy. "We are pleased that the Supreme Court denied the petition," US Attorney for Utah Brett Tolman said. "Congress has determined that armed drug trafficking is a particularly serious offense that warrants severe punishment."

Now, Angelos is facing decades in prison. He can appeal his conviction and sentence in a writ of habeas corpus, but such an appeal would go before the same courts that have already upheld them. Or he can seek a presidential pardon.

Or, when sanity finally comes to American drug sentencing practices, we can make sure to write in retroactivity for still-serving prisoners like Angelos.

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.


Special Ed CDXX (not verified)

Weldon Angelos had a gun. That IS a crime, youve changed everything by carrying a wepon. I feel for the kids, he should of thought about that ...
If you have to pack to do business then your working the wrong people or place. Things go wrong and can get real ugly
real fast.

"Alaskans,hold me accountable.And right back at ya. I'll expect a lot from you too. Take responsibilty for your families and for your futures." Gov. Palin Ak."

Sat, 12/09/2006 - 6:44am Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

Does the term "cruel and unusual punishment" mean nothing anymore? I know that we have been systematically eradicating the bill of rights under the constitution over the last few decades but 55 years for carrying a gun while selling pot is grossly excessive by any measure. The fact that our courts ignore that show how extreme our judiciary has become. In looking at both sides, I could see if this was a drug kingpin and/or they were certain that the defendant had committed violent crimes or murder but just couldn't prove it. That might justify in some ways having punishments like this on the books. It certainly wouldn't be the first time that the justice system has jailed who they are certain is a very bad criminal for crimes other than which they want to convict them on. A 26 year old wanna be rap impressario doesn't strike me as falling into the category but I guess that you would have to ask the detectives involved. However, if we are going to sentence people convicted of drug crimes to 15-30 or 55 year sentences for non-violent crimes, there should be a law on the books that makes actual convicted murderers, violent felony offenders, and sex criminals, especially serial pedophile offenders first on the list to serve these long sentences before drug offenders. When you jail a person for drugs for either a few years or half a lifetime, someone steps in to take their place so there is no logic there. This is not the case with violent or sexual offenders. Why not have them doing the long stretches? At $20-35,000 and more per inmate in costs to the taxpayer, what is the point of having the jails full with half a million or so drug or drug related offenders who are replaced the minute that they are arrested? Can you do the math on the costs of that? Prison is now a profit center like everything else in this country. Yes, in a just society there should be punishment for breaking the law but it should be commensurate with the offense, as it is written in our constitution and as it used to be before the current regime of nitwits. As an alternative, I would like to see soft drugs such as pot legalized to create tax revenue and balance our out of control debt and hard drugs regulated and prescribed by clinics to addicts to reduce the gangs and crimes on citizens that addication creates (burglary, robbery, shoplifting, car jacking etc. Do we now have a prohibition or war on common sense?

Sat, 12/09/2006 - 3:53pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

He would not have been carrying that weopon if marijuana was not unjustly prohitited.

A 55year MMS does not fit the crime.

People who rape little boys and girls have less than a 10year MMS, most of the time....


Sun, 12/10/2006 - 3:08pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

The Chief Justice's brother-in-law died when he drove off the Tappan Zee Bridge in a late model Landrover (Chief Justice Roberts' wife is from the Borough of the Bronx, where "wise-guys" once tried to nullify their case because on the paperwork, "the" was left off, or something like that. It's also where the Capitol Dome was made and then erected by a Bronx firm, Janes and Kirtland, for President Lincoln, replacing the "hat box" there, after a number of other cast iron capital improvements) which we have heard nothing about, occurring prior to his hearings and appointments. Was alcohol to blame or recent "labour" problems at the factory? Why should this man, who hurt no-one physically and probably mentally, at last citation, no one has "drank themselves to death" (also an early colonial term for "smoking") using what used to be part of American history, Kentucky was once known as "The Hemp State" useful when manila rope was unavailable and John Augustus Roebling had yet to invent the wire cable which became hemp's replacement.

I think the Supreme Court should reconsider this case and reflect on the Washington State appellate case they overturned back in the 1970s over the "Peace symbol" placed on the sixth story American flag by a native American, ruling the defendant was within his Constitutional rights of expression. In many jurisdictions it was also once within our thought Bill of Rights rights to carry a concealed weapon to protect oneself from outlaws the law had no control over, also depicted in our Hollywood Westerns.

Sun, 12/10/2006 - 3:47pm Permalink
Anonymous (not verified)

in amsterdam you get a slap on the wrist. IN the Us of suck its 55 years. something is horribly wrong here

Tue, 04/24/2007 - 11:41am Permalink
Derrick S. (not verified)

Ok he had a gun in his boot during the during the drug deal that got him busted. The other 2 guns were locked in a safe. They weren't accessable to use so they shouldn't be admitted as to possession of during the crime. And there is no proof of possession of a gun during the other 2 drug deals to the undercover officer. He should be out already for the one count. Also I realize the 2nd Ammendment allows for owning guns, I am a gun owner myself. But it is not there to own and possess during the commission of any crime. He should be set free on the grounds that he has already paid his "Debt to Society". Thanks for reading and allowing me to comment.
Fri, 05/17/2013 - 6:50pm Permalink
8TH AMMENDMENT (not verified)

This is such a sad story. Unfortunately, insanely long sentences for non violent drug offenders is all too common. My friend got 22 years, even though he cooperated to the best of his ability and pled guilty. One thing that stands out for me in his case. He was not given bail. Murderers get bail. Rapists get bail.  Non Violent Drug Offenders facing 10 years or more (Federal) are not given bail. They are locked up with no drug rehabilitation and told they will never get out... UNLESS they cooperate fully. What happened to our basic rights as Americans to the EIGHTH Amendment (NO excessive bail)? What is more excessive than being denied bail? Are we not innocent until proven guilty? Don't we have a right to decide on a plea of guilty or not guilty without being coerced and put under duress. We are supposed to give our plea of our free will. There is no coercion like the coercion of being locked up. All this is to make sure almost everyone who is facing drug charges pleads guilty and cooperates. The Justice System demands to be able to control the entire court system, because it might otherwise come to a screeching halt. Why? Because we are locking up way way way too many people for drugs. If 25% plead not guilty, the system would break down, as it should. Instead of allowing a Draconian system to be crushed under its own weight, laws have been passed that are blatantly unconstitutional in order to prop it up. The DEA has hijacked the Justice System, and the Courts are only too willing to take the side of the AUSA's who are in turn in the pocket of the DEA. The Federal Courts are full of really old white men who were appointed by Conservatives like Nixon and Ronald Reagan. They are the Right wing Republican's last line of defense used to control the society. The war on drugs is clearly an attempt to shove a certain viewpoint down the throat of an uncooperative American public. Its political. It is expensive. It is unfair and unjust. It is about time someone stood up for the Constitution. But who? Criminal Defense Lawyers? You couldn't ask for a group less interested in integrity except maybe Federal Prosecutors. A.U.S.A.s are over reaching, unfair and destroying the Justice System, but at least they don't claim to be "on your side". Are prosecutors doing their jobs? No. They are supposed to be honest and fair, but they are not. They want to win at any cost, and it shows.

Tue, 08/26/2014 - 4:33am Permalink
8TH AMMENDMENT (not verified)

In reply to by 8TH AMMENDMENT (not verified)

How can you deny bail based on the guidelines of mandatory minimum sentences? If you are busted with 50 grams or more of crystal meth you are facing a minimum sentence of 10 years. As such, you will be denied bail.

This is crazy. How can they deny bail based on sentencing? It is a broken chain of circular logic. 

If we are innocent until proven guilty, and we are not a danger to the community or a flight risk (they let them out as soon as they agree to plead guilty and cooperate anyway) then denial of bail is just fucked up. 

Tue, 08/26/2014 - 4:44am Permalink

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