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

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.

Law Enforcement: This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

Careful readers will have noted that there was no corrupt cops story in Drug War Chronicle last week. That's because we couldn't find any. One of our primary sources, Bad Cop News, had essentially gone silent, and my Google alerts on various drug-related words and phrases had turned up nothing. I appealed to my readers in a blog post on Friday, however, and thanks in part to their responses, we have more corrupt cops stories this week. I have revised and widened my Google alerts, but I'm still calling on readers to send me any local corrupt cops stories they come across. I may have seen them already, but maybe not. Just visit my contact page at http://stopthedrugwar.org/user/psmith and put "corrupt cops" in the subject line to send them along.

This week, it's a veritable potpourri of police misconduct with a heavy emphasis on the larcenous. Let's get to it:

In Chicago, three police officers were charged Monday in a widening probe into allegations Chicago police shook down drug suspects. Officers James McGovern, 40, Frank Villareal, 38, and Margaret Hopkins, 32, all members of the department's special operations section, are charged with official misconduct, and Villareal and Hopkins are also charged with home invasion. Four other Chicago police officers were arrested on similar charges in September. All are accused of robbing, kidnapping, and intimidating drug dealers and using their badges to gain access to homes. So far, the arrests have forced prosecutors to drop more than 100 drug cases.

In Norwalk, Iowa, an assistant fire chief is accused of stealing drugs and covering it up. Assistant Fire Chief Michael Wenger, 41, was arrested last Friday after admitting stealing opiate pain relievers used for EMS calls, including morphine, Tordal, and Fentanyl, and altering logs to hide his thievery. He is charged with fraudulent practices and two counts of possessing a controlled substance. Norwalk, which has been without a fire chief for the past year, now lacks an assistant chief, too.

In Las Vegas, New Mexico, a New Mexico Highlands University security officer has been charged with drug trafficking. Police allege they found cocaine in Officer Michelle Espinoza's purse last week. According to a university spokeswoman, Espinoza, 35, has been placed on leave pending resolution of the case.

In Scranton, Pennsylvania, a Pittston Township police officer was charged in federal court last Friday with felony drug and weapons offenses. Officer Michael Byra, 28, recently testified he had made at least 60 drug busts, but it appears he had problems leaving the evidence alone. He is charged with possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine, possession with intent to distribute marijuana, possession of a firearm during a felony drug trafficking transaction and possession of a stolen firearm. The charges came after the DEA investigated missing evidence -- heroin, cocaine, marijuana, guns, $10,000 in cash, files, and a log book. Byra now faces up to life in prison.

In Ashland, Kentucky, a former state trooper pleaded guilty Tuesday to federal charges he stole $180,000 from police drug buy funds. Former trooper Louie Podunavac Jr., 41, was a sergeant responsible for the narcotics division in Boyd, Greenup, and Lawrence counties in eastern Kentucky until he retired in July upon being questioned by investigators hunting for missing funds. He admitted in court that he used his access to a state bank account to take money designated for drug buys and transfer it to an account in his own name. Podunavac will be sentenced March 12. He also faces six state charges of fraudulently obtaining a controlled substance. Podunavac's attorney, David Mussetter, explained that Podunavac broke his ankle in 2003, got strung out on Lortab, and stole the money to buy painkillers.

Near Boston, a Malden Police officer was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison on November 15 for ripping-off a drug dealer. Officer David Jordan, a 19-year veteran of the force, participated in a scheme with a local drug dealer to stop a rival dealer and steal three kilograms of cocaine valued at $81,000. Jordan's co-conspirator, Anthony Bucci, 43, of Wakefield, got 22 years the same day.

Drug Raids: Cops Looking Worse and Worse as Facts Emerge in Deadly Atlanta Case

The shooting death of 88-year-old Atlanta resident Kathryn Johnston at the hands of undercover Atlanta police after she fired at them as they burst through her front door continues to cause outrage in the community. And as the days go by, more and more questions are being raised about police behavior that night.

Police originally said they had bought drugs at Johnston's address. Police originally said they knocked and announced their presence before entering. But the search warrant that led to the raid, which Fulton County officials originally refused to release, is clearly marked as a "no-knock" warrant. The affidavit that led to the warrant describes not the police but a confidential informant making the alleged drug buy.

It gets worse -- The confidential informant said this week he never bought drugs at the house and that the police asked him to lie about it after the fact. This has provoked a counterattack by unknowns unhappy with the "reliable" informant, who have leaked his identity to the press and described him as a "drug dealer" as a prelude to discrediting him. [Ed: Somehow that doesn't seem to discredit such people sufficiently to throw out their testimony in mandatory minimum cases.]

Police Chief Richard Pennington now says the department will review its "no-knock" policy. In a preemptive move, Pennington also announced that the killing of Kathryn Johnston will be the subject of a federal investigation. But even those moves haven't taken the heat off of the Atlanta police, with Pennington manfully enduring raucous public meetings where member after member of the community have excoriated him and his department over Johnston's death and trigger-happy police practices.

More community meetings are coming, and multiple investigations are ongoing. Perhaps the killing of Kathryn Johnston will end up serving some purpose if her death helps to rein in law enforcers who treat citizens as if they were enemy combatants.

Visit The Agitator blog for ongoing updates on this case and other bad drug raids.

Marijuana: Lowest Priority Initiatives Coming to Maine

Maine is set to become the latest state to try passing local initiatives to make adult marijuana use the lowest law enforcement priority. A state group with affiliations with the Marijuana Policy Project, the Maine Marijuana Policy Initiative (MMPI), has submitted petitions to officials in five western Maine towns, and is already set to go to the polls in Sumner. Town meetings in Farmington, Paris, West Paris and Athens, where petitions have been delivered to local officials, may also consider the initiatives next year.

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Maine campaign ad
Maine activists are starting small, but thinking big, MMPI executive director Jonathan Leavitt told the Associated Press. "The purpose of the ordinance is to let the county, state and federal government know that many people believe the marijuana laws are not working," Leavitt said.

Lowest priority initiatives have proven extremely successful since first pioneered in Seattle in 2003. Cities that have passed such initiatives now include Oakland, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, and Santa Monica, California; as well as Columbia, Missouri; Eureka Springs, Arkansas; and Missoula, Montana.

But Farmington, Maine, Police Chief Richard Caton didn't think much of the idea. Who knows what kind of people might be attracted to town, he warned the AP. Also, the chief said, police would be caught between local and state and federal law. "A better way, if this is the sentiment of the people, is to change the state and federal laws," he said.

The Maine lowest priority ordinances would prohibit communities from accepting federal funds that would be used to enforce the marijuana laws and would require police to submit reports on the number and type of marijuana arrests to each municipality that adopts the ordinance, he said. Municipal officials would be required to notify state and federal officials they want to see marijuana taxed and regulated, not prohibited.

Lt. Hart Daley of the Oxford County Sheriff's Department didn't like the sound of that. "We still consider drug offenses on the top of the list of our priorities," Daley said.

Attitudes like Daley's are why local initiatives are only the beginning.

Legalization: Vermont States Attorney Calls for Decriminalization of All Drugs

Windsor County, Vermont, States Attorney Robert Sand has spoken out against the drug war. In a Thursday interview with the Rutland Herald, Sand said he favors decriminalizing all drugs and a public health approach to drug use.

"It's hard for me to see the vast resources expended on drug cases," Sand said. The 15-year prosecutor added that he wished more resources would go into prosecuting the physical and sexual abuse of children. "Don't get me wrong. Drugs are bad for you, they impair your judgment, they affect your memory, they reduce your inhibitions in a dangerous way. They're not good for you."

But the state of Vermont needs to rethink whether it is the role of government to forcibly stop people from using intoxicating substances, Sand said. The idea should not be considered radical, he protested. "I actually reject the premise that it's radical. I'm not condoning people breaking the law. My duty is to enforce the law but it's not my role to just passively accept a situation that exacerbates public danger. Prohibition doesn't work; we should have learned that with alcohol," he said.

It is drug prohibition, not drugs themselves, that causes the most serious crime, Sand argued. "Drug transactions cause the most serious crimes," he said, noting that the disputes deal with money owed, drugs stolen and turf wars between dealers. "That's the violence of drugs," he said, not drug-induced crime. "We don't see crazed crack heads or someone on crystal," he said.

Sand told the Herald he had taken his message to major police departments, and after an initially rocky response, could get police to see his point of view. He asks them to think "about the worst drug house in their community, the worst drug dealer, the worst addict" and then asks them to envision the house painted and repaired and people obtaining drugs legally. That's when they come around he said. "It means less violence. It means less addicts."

Sand has only recently begun speaking out, he told the Herald. It sounds like he is ready to be heard.

Sentencing: Correctional Supervision At All-Time High With Over Seven Million People Tied to the System

According to the latest annual reports from the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), the number of people in the United States behind bars or on parole or probation has jumped to an all-time high. More than seven million people are enjoying the tender mercies of state and federal criminal justice systems, the statistical agency reported.

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prison dorm
In a pair of reports released Thursday -- one on the number of people in jail or prison at the end of 2005 and one on the number of people on probation or parole at the end of 2005 -- BJS found that drug offenders make up about 20% of all state prisoners (251,000 out of 1.25 million) and about 55% of federal prisoners (87,000 out of 158,000 -- at the end of 2003, the latest stats available from the feds). In both cases, the numbers show a slight downward trend in the number of drug prisoners as a percentage of all prisoners.

The prison and jail population continues to grow. State prison populations increased by 1.9% during 2005, while the federal system grew by 4%. In the federal system, drug offenders were responsible for 49% of the growth in the prisoner population. Overall, at the end of 2005, nearly 2.2 million people were behind bars in the US, or one out of every 136 residents.

The states with the fastest growing prison populations were South Dakota (up 12%), Montana (up 11%), and Kentucky (up 10%). Eleven additional states had increases of more than 5%, while 11 other states reported decreases in their prison populations.

Some 672,000 people were released from prison in 2005, surely contributing to the 784,000 parolees in the country. Additionally, more than 4.15 million people are on probation, 28% of them for drug offenses. That means more than 1.1 million people are being supervised by the criminal justice system for ingesting, possessing, or trading in the wrong substances.

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"I think these numbers just don't register with most Americans," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "They only make sense when you point out that the United States has 5% of the world's population and 25% of the world's incarcerated population; that we rank first in the world in locking up our fellow citizens; and that we now imprison more people for drug law violations than all of western Europe -- with a much larger population -- incarcerates for all offenses. Imagine what a difference it would make if we just stopped locking up people for nonviolent drug offenses," he added.

"I spent 12 years behind bars for a first time nonviolent offense," said Anthony Papa, communications specialist at the Drug Policy Alliance." Many of the people I met were serving long sentences behind bars on drug charges and were not major drug dealers. They were people who sold drugs to support a habit. These individuals, their families and society would have benefited from receiving treatment, not jail time."

Another year, another record number of prisoners, probationers, and parolees.

Marijuana: Michigan Legalization Initiative Gets State Okay to Gather Signatures for 2008

The Michigan Board of State Canvassers this week approved a petition from an Eaton Rapids group for an initiative that would allow adults to use and grow marijuana on private property. The action means that the group, Medical and Recreational Peace, can now begin gathering signatures to put the measure on the 2008 ballot.

It will be an uphill battle for the all-volunteer group. Under Michigan law, initiative organizers must garner more than 300,000 valid signatures of registered voters to make the ballot. Similar efforts have failed in 2000, 2002, and this year.

Michigan is more likely to see a 2008 medical marijuana initiative. While a hearing in the legislature this week is unlikely to lead to action this year, the legislature will have 2007 to pass a medical marijuana bill. If that doesn’t happen, there are already murmurings about going the initiative route. Indeed, one state senator has already suggested as much.

Southeast Asia: New Thai Government to Begin Investigating 2,500 Murders Committed During Thaksin's Drug War

With former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra deposed this fall by a military coup, the victims of his bloody effort to stamp out drug use in 2003 may at last see some justice. According to Thai human rights and legal groups, as many as 2,500 people were summarily executed as drug users or traffickers by Thai police enforcing Thaksin's vow to wipe out drugs in Thailand.

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2003 protest at Thai embassy, DRCNet's David Guard in foreground
New Prime Minister Gen. Surayud Chulanont has vowed to reopen at least 40 cases of murders where families formally complained to the Thai Lawyers Council and the National Human Rights Commission. If these early cases produce results, it is expected that more of the families of those killed will come forward to make formal complaints. The previous government eventually identified some 2,598 murders where friends or family members blamed drug-fighting police, but no one has ever been prosecuted, let alone convicted, for those crimes.

The effort to bring Thaksin and his flunkies to justice is being spearheaded by former Senator Kraisak Choonhavan, a long-time human rights campaigner. Kraisak has called for the prosecution of Thaksin and other high officials in lieu of going after foot soldiers. Kraisak's campaign has been joined by the Thai Lawyers Council's co-chairman for human rights, Somchai Homla, who called for serious investigations of human rights violations during Thaksin's drug war.

Gen. Surayud has apparently learned some lessons from Thaksin's bloody attack on drug users. Last week, he warned police and anti-drug authorities to scrupulously uphold the law in conducting anti-drug campaigns. ''Our work must stick to human rights and the rule of law. We will not do anything illegal. As state officials we have to make this matter clear first,'' he said in a speech to some 300 senior police and anti-drug officials.

But Gen. Surayud is, like his predecessor, still conducting anti-drug campaigns. At least he has promised to use peaceful methods and ordered an evaluation of the latest campaign after six months. Hopefully human rights campaigners will not have to soon level their protests against him.

Southeast Asia: Myanmar Military Turns Blind Eye to Allied Ethnic Militias' Opium Trade

With Afghanistan dominating opium production worldwide for the past few years, countries like Myanmar (Burma) have seen their share of global production decline and have been quick to holler to the heavens about how they are fighting the good fight against drugs. But a report from the Shan Herald Agency for News (SHAN) suggests that the Myanmar military is only suppressing opium production among groups with which it is in conflict (like the Shan) while simultaneously protecting growing and trafficking by militias linked to ethnic groups it favors, like the Wa, Lahu and Kachin.

Citing eyewitness accounts and its own forays into the area, SHAN found that such groups have reached a quid pro quo with the military: They help the ruling junta by providing control over their respective territories, and in return, the military leaves their opium business alone. The ethnic militias also provide economic benefits to military leaders, including expensive gifts to officers and their wives.

Opium production in Myanmar has been declining for a decade, and has shrunk from 1,700 tons in 1997 to 680 tons last year. The military junta has used that decline to woo the United Nations and Western countries, who have isolated the Yangon regime because of its repressive policies. But SHAN complains that the figure is misleading. Tough eradication campaigns have been aimed at ethnic enemies of the junta, like the Shan, while ethnic groups allied with the regime have received a free pass.

Now, while Shan peasants have been forcibly relocated or had their crops destroyed, poppy cultivation is spreading among government-favored ethnic groups in the northeast, SHAN reported.

Medical Marijuana: California Supreme Court Rules Patients Can Transport It

The California Supreme Court ruled Monday that the state's medical marijuana laws allow people to transport the drug as long as they can show it was for their personal medical use. The court said that the law protects even patients carrying large amounts of weed as long as they can show it is consistent with their medical needs.

The 6-1 decision disappointed prosecutors, said a spokesman for California Attorney General Bill Lockyer. Nathan Barankin told the Los Angeles Times prosecutors had hoped the court would make it easier to prosecute marijuana sellers using a medical marijuana defense. Still, Barankin added, the court's clarification was helpful.

The decision "expands the defenses that can be used for medical marijuana," attorney Maureen J. Shanahan told the Times. She represented Shaun Wright, the defendant in the case.

Wright was arrested in Huntington Beach in 2001 and charged with possession of marijuana for sale and transporting it after police found more than a pound of weed, a scale, and several baggies in his truck. During trial Wright's physician testified he had recommended Wright use marijuana for pain, abdominal problems, and stress. The physician also testified that Wright preferred to eat his medicine and thus required more than patients who smoked it. The doctor said Wright needed a pound of pot every two or three months.

Wright asked that jurors be instructed that he did not commit a crime if it was determined he was a legitimate patient, but the trial judge ruled Wright was not protected by the state's medical marijuana laws because of the large quantity and the fact he was transporting it. Wright was convicted on both counts, but an appeals court overturned the conviction, saying jurors should have been given the medical marijuana instruction.

While the state Supreme Court agreed that Wright should have been able to present a medical marijuana defense, it refused to overturn his conviction, saying the jury "found beyond a reasonable doubt that he possessed the drug with the specific intent to sell it."

The lesson for Golden State pot patients: Leave your scales at home.

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