« "Crime, Punishment, and Politics: An Analysis of Political Cycles in Criminal Sentencing" | Main | Capital defendant in Tennessee seeks reversal based on sentencing jury's praying »

January 2, 2013

"Plead Guilty or Go to Prison for Life"

The title of this post is the headline of this new commentary concerning the Chris Williams' case and authored by Jacob Sollum over at Reason.com.  The sub-headline is "The stark choice given a medical marijuana grower highlights the injustice of mandatory minimums," and here are excerpts:

Chris Williams, a Montana medical marijuana grower, faces at least five years in federal prison when he is sentenced on February 1. The penalty seems unduly severe, especially because his business openly supplied marijuana to patients who were allowed to use it under state law.

Yet five years is a cakewalk compared to the sentence Williams originally faced, which would have kept the 38-year-old father behind bars for the rest of his life. The difference is due to an extremely unusual post-conviction agreement that highlights the enormous power prosecutors wield as a result of mandatory minimum sentences so grotesquely unjust that in this case even they had to admit it....

For a while it seemed that Williams, who rejected a plea deal because he did not think he had done anything wrong and because he wanted to challenge federal interference with Montana's medical marijuana law, also was destined to die in prison. Since marijuana is prohibited for all purposes under federal law, he was not allowed even to discuss the nature of his business in front of the jury, so his conviction on the four drug charges he faced, two of which carried five-year mandatory minimums, was more or less inevitable.

Stretching Williams' sentence from mindlessly harsh to mind-bogglingly draconian, each of those marijuana counts was tied to a charge of possessing a firearm during a drug trafficking offense, based on guns at the Helena grow operation that Williams supervised and at Flor's home in Miles City, which doubled as a dispensary. Federal law prescribes a five-year mandatory minimum for the first such offense and 25 years for each subsequent offense, with the sentences to run consecutively.

Consequently, when Williams was convicted on all eight counts, he faced a mandatory minimum sentence of 80 years for the gun charges alone, even though he never handled the firearms cited in his indictment, let alone hurt anyone with them. This result, which federal prosecutors easily could have avoided by bringing different charges, was so absurdly disproportionate that U.S. Attorney Michael Cotter offered Williams a deal.

Drop your appeal, Cotter said, and we'll drop enough charges so that you might serve "as little as 10 years." No dice, said Williams, still determined to challenge the Obama administration's assault on medical marijuana providers. But when Cotter came back with a better offer, involving a five-year mandatory minimum, Williams took it, having recognized the toll his legal struggle was taking on his 16-year-old son, a freshman at Montana State University.

"I think everyone in the federal system realizes that these mandatory minimum sentences are unjust," Williams tells me during a call from the Missoula County Detention Facility. But for prosecutors they serve an important function: "They were basically leveraging this really extreme sentence against something that was so light because they wanted to force me into taking a plea deal." Nine out of 10 federal criminal cases end in guilty pleas.

The efficient transformation of defendants into prisoners cannot be the standard by which we assess our criminal justice system. If the possibility of sending someone like Chris Williams to prison for the rest of his life is so obviously unfair, why does the law allow it, let alone mandate it?

I am glad to see the Williams' case continuing to get attention and criticism, but this commentary overlooks what strikes me as one of the worst parts of the deal with federal devil that Williams was forced to accept: in the deal, Williams waived all of his appeal rights to challenge his convictions so that he would not be able to continue with his lawful and courageous challenge to the federal laws with which he was prosecuted.

Prior posts on Williams case and related prosecutions:

January 2, 2013 at 11:43 AM | Permalink

TrackBack

TrackBack URL for this entry:
http://www.typepad.com/services/trackback/6a00d83451574769e2017ee6df1465970d

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference "Plead Guilty or Go to Prison for Life":

Comments

"Williams waived all of his appeal rights to challenge his convictions so that he would not be able to continue with his lawful and courageous challenge to the federal laws with which he was prosecuted."

It may well have been courageous, but it was not lawful. The lawful thing to do would be, uh, to follow the law while seeking, through political persuasion, to get it changed.

To say that Williams' challenge was "lawful" is like saying that a Marxist -- one who sincerely believes in the evil of the capitalist/financial system -- is pursing a "lawful" challenge when he robs the bank.

Well, no, he isn't. Neither is it "lawful" to operate a huge "medical" marijuana business in defiance of the CSA. Raich doesn't disappear because you don't like it (anymore than the Obamacare case disappears because I don't like it).

The lawful thing for the Marxist to do is lead a campaign to change the financial system. If he loses, too bad. The rule of law in a democracy cannot survive if law only gets followed when you win.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 2, 2013 12:30:54 PM

The article suggests to me yet again that marijuana laws are being enforced (e.g., "more than two dozen Montana medical marijuana") in troubling ways & will continue to be until the laws are passed.

Such targeting of providers also will burden specific users of medicinal marijuana. Cf. how keeping birth control clinics closed inhibited the distribution of contraceptives to certain parties in Poe et. al. v. Connecticut. The contraceptives were broadly available there too but not equally to everyone & the laws seriously inhibited, selectively, their distribution to all.

I would add that the OP seems to me to have used "lawful" here as applied not to the crime but his rejection of a plea deal.

Posted by: Joe | Jan 2, 2013 12:41:54 PM

"the laws are passed" = "changing the laws in place now, such as allowing local option"

Posted by: Joe | Jan 2, 2013 12:46:36 PM

""The contraceptives were broadly available there too but not equally to everyone""

same with melanin

Posted by: Adamakis | Jan 2, 2013 3:23:17 PM

likewise with skin cancer
{seems albinos, Irish, and other fair-skinned folks get all the fun (melanoma)}

Posted by: Adamakis | Jan 2, 2013 3:56:02 PM

The Strangest Conservative Priority: Prepping a '2nd Amendment Solution'

By Conor Friedersdorf

Jan 2 2013, 6:00 AM ET 272

The Bill of Rights offers much smarter, more effective ways to safeguard liberty than preparing for armed insurrection.

In the National Review, Kevin Williamson argues that nearly everyone calling for gun control either doesn't understand or refuses to address the actual purpose of the 2nd Amendment. They talk, he says, as if there's no legitimate reason for an American to have military grade weapons, as if the 2nd Amendment protects mere hunting and home security. "The purpose of having citizens armed with paramilitary weapons is to allow them to engage in paramilitary actions," Williamson writes. "There is no legitimate exception to the Second Amendment for military-style weapons, because military-style weapons are precisely what the Second Amendment guarantees our right to keep and bear. The purpose of the Second Amendment is to secure our ability to oppose enemies foreign and domestic, a guarantee against disorder and tyranny."

Walter E. Williams makes a similar argument in a Townhall column. "There have been people who've ridiculed the protections afforded by the Second Amendment, asking what chance would citizens have against the military might of the U.S. government," he writes. "Military might isn't always the deciding factor. Our 1776 War of Independence was against the mightiest nation on the face of the earth -- Great Britain. In Syria, the rebels are making life uncomfortable for the much-better-equipped Syrian regime. Today's Americans are vastly better-armed than our founders, Warsaw Ghetto Jews and Syrian rebels. There are about 300 million privately held firearms owned by Americans. That's nothing to sneeze at. And notice that the people who support gun control are the very people who want to control and dictate our lives."

What do I think about this relatively common argument within the conservative movement? For now, I'll refrain from answering. If you're looking for considered objections, read Matt Steinglass in The Economist. In this item, we're going to proceed as if the arguments above are correct -- that there is a real danger of the U.S. government growing tyrannical; that the people must preserve checks on its power; and that the Framers best understood how to do so.

I respect that general reasoning.

What I can't respect are the conservatives who invoke it during political battles over gun control, even as they ignore or actively oppose so many other important attempts to safeguard liberty.

Posted by: George | Jan 2, 2013 4:14:50 PM

Bill: I meant for "lawful" to modify the nature of the challenge that Williams was bringing AFTER his prosecution, not the actions which he took before (which, obviously, violated federal law and served as the basis for his federal prosecution). I understand your reaction to my poor choice of adjective here, though I struggle to find another word to highlight is consider the "legal legitimacy" of Williams' various potential legal/constitutional arguments. (E.g., I think the commerce clause part of the ruling in the Obamacare case surely provides a foundation for contended that SCOTUS should now reverse Raich).

It is interesting to speculate whether the feds would have sought a dismissal on any number of potental procedural grounds had Williams' first sought a declaratory judgment to conduct his business. That is an academic concern in Williams' case now, of course, though I suspect there might be a lot of would-be small business folks in Colorado and Washington eager to try to figure out whether and how they might seek some kind of legal ruling about their potential liability if/when they seek to comply with the new state laws there.

Posted by: Doug B. | Jan 2, 2013 4:18:46 PM

Well bill and doug the problem comes when you have a state govt that says one thing and a federal govt saying the opposite. What is a poor citizen to do. Tell the local govt to get fucked or obey some govt 1,000 miles away.

Solution might be to put the actors from both govt's into a room ...the one who lives to come out decides which rules we follow.

Since i'm sorry if the Fed's thought the state law was in fact illegal. Why was a federal restraining order not issued?

Sorry don't allow the law to go into effect and then talk shit to those who use that law as a reason to do something.

That sounds to me like entrapment!

Posted by: rodsmith | Jan 2, 2013 6:15:59 PM

"The lawful thing to do would be, uh, to follow the law while seeking, through political persuasion, to get it changed."

I wonder what this country would be like today if people like Rosa Parks had sought change through "political persuasion."

Now, to be clear, equating a medical marijuana dispenser with a civil rights pioneer is a bit ridiculous, but so is suggesting that the only way to effect change is to politick.

Posted by: Brian G. | Jan 2, 2013 7:17:28 PM

There is a bigger problem than that of political persuasion, and changing the law. It is the nature of the people making laws. They are mostly lawyers. They are all members of a criminal cult enterprise. It excels at only one thing. Rent seeking. It is in utter failure at all other goals of every law subject.

The obstacles are insurmountable. One has to get rent seeking declared a crime, preferably carrying the death penalty because the size of the haul of this synonym for armed robbery often exceeds the value of life.

One has to exclude the lawyer from all policy positions in the judiciary, the legislature, and the executive. The analogy would be to excluding a heroin addict from practicing pharmacy or anesthesiology. It is good for both the position and for the addict, since the temptations of limitless access to pharmaceutical grade opiates are irresistible.

No one in history has ever given up $trillions or vast powers voluntarily. Most often they have had to be killed to wrest it away. If the Mafia comes around demanding money from a merchant, the merchant has a duty to band together with other victims, capture the Mafia criminal, torture him, and send the head back to the Big Boss. That will not work usually. There is a subsequent duty to attack first. Find the Big Boss, and kill him, and his entire family. If the rent seeker does no recognize the humanity of the millions of victims, no human consideration is owed. To deter.

The Supremacy has suggested assault weapons and magazines with large capacities are necessary, not for hunting or self-defense. They are needed to stop the take over of the nation by left wing rent seekers. These are armed robbers and all patriots have a duty to stop them.

The current victims of the lawyer should form action groups and begin the resistance, to save our nation. It should begin with black lists of enemies and internal traitors. The listed should be boycotted by all product and service providers. One can pray, they will learn quickly, and prevent the necessity of subsequent measures.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jan 2, 2013 11:17:53 PM

Brian G. --

"I wonder what this country would be like today if people like Rosa Parks had sought change through 'political persuasion.'"

I think you oversimplify it. Rosa Parks set an example that -- guess what -- persuaded a majority that Jim Crow had to go. And so, through political processes and legislation, it did. Specifically, Jim Crow became illegal, and the most powerful laws making it illegal were enforced on dissenting states through federal supremacy.

Which might bring to mind the CSA and the Raich decision.....

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 2, 2013 11:26:49 PM

LOL i think the race riots that followed her stand also had a hell of a lot to do with it. You know Naked force!

Posted by: rodsmith | Jan 2, 2013 11:32:18 PM

Bill --

Her setting an example may have persuaded, but she had to be arrested to do so. Surely you know this.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Rosaparks_policereport.jpg

Posted by: Brian G. | Jan 2, 2013 11:50:47 PM

Brian G. --

Yup. And according to the pro-pot side, there have been, not one, but hundreds of thousands of pot arrests, and it's been going on for many, many years.

How much has this done to change the CSA?

Zip.

And why is that?

Because people can tell the difference between the yearning to be treated with basic human decency and the yearning to get blasted.

It's Barack Obama, a direct beneficiary of Rosa Parks, who hired Eric Holder, also a direct beneficiary, who has approved the move against California's so-called "medical" marijuana dispensaries. They appear to have less than complete sympathy for your complaints.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 3, 2013 12:08:23 AM

For some historical perspective, the Inquisition lasted, as a great viable business model, for 700 years. It is very robust. See the Vatican for the signs of its success. Anyone else have a house built like that? It took the French Revolution to end it. French patriots beheaded and expelled 10,000 church officials.

The American lawyer has picked it up where the church left off. It will last another 1000 years unless something like a French Revolution repeats itself. They go after the productive middle class, to plunder it. The rules, parsing, Latin, the supernatural central doctrines, the gotcha, plea deals, briefs, appeals, the robes, the gavel, the raised bench, the standing for the low life tyrant internal traitor on the bench, the oaths, the intonations, the court decor itself, all from church.

Without arresting, trying, and executing the hierarchy, the lawyer version, Inquisition 2.0, will last a 1000 years, their being far slicker and better trained than monks of 1275 AD. As a matter of information, no one on this blog is susceptible to arrest for treason. If members of the hierarchy read this blog, you must rethink you Ivy indoctrination and voluntarily stop your rent seeking, or face the consequences. Come the next major terror attack, there will be lawyer concentration camps, and mass summary executions of all the internal traitors. It may not stop at the 15,000 member hierarchy, once the blood lust payback is unleashed.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jan 3, 2013 9:04:43 AM

Although it is ridiculous that he gets gun charges filed against him and the mandatory minimums add up to 80 yrs, ouch....He thumbed his nose at the Feds by running a drug house basically, from their view point....So he he didn't give his liberties or life any leeway to sneak past the Feds.. Its not if they come, its when they come... When you stand up and basically go nah nah nah nah....Catch me if ya can..

I agree with Doug and most others, federal gun charges, acca and drug sentences are way out of line..
If its federal its going to be off the reservation, for sure....ANy of you watch the boys vote on the fiscal cliff the other night....What a bunch of non professionals....They bicker and put everything off to the last minute... When you work New Years day for what you could of and should of been doing 6-18 months earlier, I have respect for you....Oh well this is about this guys case on selling medical mary jane...Everyone knows Federal law trumps state....Although unfortunate, what the hell was he thinking...

I am an aggressive person that goes after what Im doing....But to stand up to the country and have it advertised and knowing that the feds busted calif dispenseries....I would dry my buisness up *immed..
Didn't the feds issue a statement tht they were going after these enterprises....

I use enterprise loosely, selling illegal drugs basically....Play with fire your gonna get .........

I've said way too much on this thread for sure.... Hope everyone had/is having nice holidays...

If this guy didn't take the ple deal, he doesn't need a lawyer, needs a priest...

Posted by: Midwest Guy | Jan 3, 2013 11:42:26 AM

It will be interesting to see what happens to those with marijuana businesses in Colorado and Washington. Prosecutions are arbitrary.

Posted by: beth | Jan 3, 2013 12:58:46 PM

Bill, I'm pretty sure the "lawful and courageous challenge" would be the appeal, not the pot farm.

Posted by: Levi Roth | Jan 3, 2013 3:36:12 PM

Doug and Levi --

On re-reading, I think you are right. The challenge being referenced was the foregone appeal.

That said, I would make two points. First, waiving an appeal as part of a plea bargain is standard stuff at this point, and the waiver has been upheld by all the circuits. Second, what were the realistic chances he had any winning issue on appeal? He evidently concluded they weren't that much, and if so, he was correct.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 4, 2013 11:56:47 AM

LOL this one was funny bill!

"Second, what were the realistic chances he had any winning issue on appeal? He evidently concluded they weren't that much, and if so, he was correct."

You think the entire planet doesn't know you can't fight washington?

that comes right back to conflict of interest! How can a judiciary paid by the state be impartial in a trial between the state and a citizen!

it's can't!

Posted by: rodsmith | Jan 5, 2013 12:58:00 AM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB