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Supreme Court to Hear Case On Mandatory Drug Sentences

By Joan Biskupic
The Washington Post

The 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, 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 beating of Rodney G. King in Los Angeles four years ago 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 Monday 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, 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 also allows the prosecutor to control whether there's a departure from a statutory minimum sentence.