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May 19, 2011

Federal prosecutors cut probation deal for rich woman who hosted cocaine parties for years!?!?

I am about to head off (and off-line) for the US Sentencing Commission's annual conference, where tomorrow I will be on a panel discussing plea bargaining.  With that background, and especially given that crack and powder cocaine sentencing will be a frequent topic of discussion, I found especially timely this remarkable (and shocking?) local federal story out of Montana.  The piece is headlined "Billings businesswoman sentenced for holding cocaine parties," and here are the details:

A U.S. District Court judge on Wednesday sentenced Billings businesswoman Dru Cederberg to two years probation, including eight months of house arrest, and fined her $550,000 for attempting to maintain a drug-related premises.

For about a decade, Cederberg, a millionaire and an heir to the Brach's Confections fortune, hosted series of dinner parties at her home. After the dining ended, people moved to the back of her home, and Cederberg laid out cocaine in the bathroom for the guests' use, testimony showed.

Cederberg, 52, is the latest person convicted and sentenced in the high-profile conspiracy involving cocaine in Billings and the surrounding area. Cederberg had testified for the federal government when her drug dealer and friend, Domingo Baez, was convicted. She also testified in the trials of some other defendants.

U.S. District Judge Charles C. Lovell said his first inclination was to reject the proposed plea agreement worked out between the U.S. Attorney's Office and Cederberg's lawyer that she be sentenced to two years' probation and a $50,000 forfeiture or fine. "The plea agreement on its face is exceptionally lenient compared to the sentences imposed on the other defendants," Lovell said. Lovell told Cederberg she was more culpable than Terri Jabs Kurth, who served eight months in prison, and was second in culpability only to Baez, who is serving 15 years in prison.

He did praise her role in cooperating with the Justice Department and testifying against some other defendants. But then Lovell tacked on an additional $500,000 fine and said he would have fined Cederberg more had he been allowed to do so under federal sentencing guidelines.

Marcie Zinke, a federal probation officer, had recommended that Cederberg be incarcerated for 18 months, be sentenced to three years of supervised release afterward and be fined $250,000. "The reason I have accepted this plea agreement ... is certain mental health concerns and the yeoman's service you provided to the United States," Lovell said.

He said the evidence would support a greater charge than the Justice Department brought forward. "But I think the appropriate penalty here is a financial one, rather than one of incarceration," he said.  "A prison sentence is not appropriate for you -- at least not at this time."

Cederberg has net assets of at least $14 million, including three homes valued at a combined $3 million, including the $2 million home in which she lives, Lovell said, quoting the federal probation officer's report.  Cederberg is a single mother with a 15-year-old daughter....

Friends and business associates, in letters submitted to the court, testified to Cederberg's compassion and widespread anonymous generosity in the Billings area.

"You do have an extreme history of a usage of illegal drugs, I think beginning at about age 17," Lovell said in sentencing her. "I do understand that you have given up that habit and are not using any illegal drugs.  You are what we would refer to as a wealthy individual here in Montana."  Cederberg's attorney, Mark Parker, testified that his client has said she hasn't that used cocaine since 2008.  Lovell told Cederberg he believes she introduced the use of cocaine to a number of who otherwise may not have used the illegal drug....

Cederberg will be required to wear monitoring devices provided by the probation officer so it can monitor her locations.  She cannot leave her home for eight months except for medical reasons, court appearances and any other activities approved in advance by the court.

Lovell said each one of the dinner parties where Cederberg laid out cocaine for her guests' use amounted to "a distribution of an illegal controlled substance," Lovell said, saying it amounted to thousands of dollars worth of drugs.

Cederberg's attorney presented the $50,000 check agreed to under the plea deal to the judge, and the Thaggard turned it over to someone from the U.S. Marshals Service. As for the $500,000 additional fine, Lovell told Cederberg: "If you pay the fine within 30 days, the court won't apply interest to that amount. I think from your net worth, you'll be able to do it."

I could and perhaps should make this remarkable case the focal point of an entire federal sentencing course, because almost every hot-button issue in modern federal drug sentencing policy and practice is implicated here.  What an amazing example this case is concerning, e.g., charge bargaining by prosecutors, a sweet plea deal for a cooperator, lenient (and special?) treatment for a female and well-to-do (white?) defendant involved with powder cocaine and not crack, the relationship between prison, home confinement and financial sanctions, the impact of addictions and mental health on crime and punishment, and the role and impact of prosecutors, probation officers and judges at sentencing.

Especially given the addition of a big fine (which I wish was even higher), I am not asserting that the deal cut by prosecutors and accepted by the district judge here is misguided or unjust.  Indeed, a pretty good argument can be made in this context that Dru Cederberg's novel and notable sentence does achieve 3553(a)'s mandate of being "sufficient but not greater than necessary" to achieve the punishment goals set forth by Congress.  However, given that a large number of poor urban men and women are serving not merely years, but decades, in federal prison for distributing small amounts of crack cocaine, it is still somewhat stunning to hear of a case of involving rich rural woman getting probation for hosting cocaine parties for a decade.

May 19, 2011 at 11:24 AM | Permalink


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You mention "sweet plea deals for cooperators, lenient (and special?) treatment for female (and well-to-do?) defendants involved with powder cocaine and not crack, the relationship between prison, home confinement and financial sanctions, the impact of addictions and mental health on crime and punishment"

as potential factors in her sentencing. Yet here, certainly the fact that she's white also may have played a role in her sentencing?

Also, I do not think that her being female is nearly as much of an issue as her class and race. After all, one her co-d's, was female and actually did hard time despite playing a reportedly lesser role in the crimes committed. That plus the glaring incarceration rate of women which is skyrocketing faster than men, in significant part due to drug offenses, and particularly skyrocketing for Latina and African-American women. I really believe the fact that this defendant is white *and* upper class, were/are factors of more impact than her gender.

And yes, I also find the disparity between sentences such as Cederberg's and the sentences of the vast majority of women arrested for drug offenses - outrageous. Unfortunately, this appalling disparity happens all the time, as is apparent from who is filling our prisons and jails.

Posted by: anonymous | May 19, 2011 11:57:22 AM

Stunning yes. Fair too. Point to be made at your seminar is that the benefit of decisions like this should not be limited to people with means. Rather,case should be used aggressively by judges to support similar sentences in drug cases across the board where facts support keeping someone out of prison.

Posted by: tom hillier | May 19, 2011 12:30:19 PM

"Especially given the addition of a big fine (which I wish was even higher), I am not asserting that the deal cut by prosecutors and accepted by the district judge here is misguided or unjust."

Then I will.

This is what happens when prosecutors aren't serious and judges get taken in with stuff like, "The reason I have accepted this plea agreement ... is certain mental health concerns and the yeoman's service you provided to the United States."

Substantial assistance is worth rewarding, for sure, but this was overboard. And "mental health concerns" is merely code for tossing aside anything resembling accountability in favor of whatever word processor psychobabble her well-compensated shrink has been accommodating enough to provide.

I really do wonder how the AUSA got a sentencing agreement of this ilk past his Office's review committee. Maybe they don't have a review committee, in which case this eye-rolling outcome is Exhibit A as to why they need one.

Posted by: Bill Otis | May 19, 2011 1:15:50 PM

May I add that while I understand the rationale of the fine here is meant to re-compense the government, in this instance and in my humble opinion it contributes, what is in effect, a sordid aspect to this matter. The fine is not punitive here, as it reportedly means nothing to her pocketbook. That coupled with the no-incarceration exception granted her, reeks of Cederberg in a sense buying this whole judicial process.

(Amy Bach's book Ordinary Injustice comes to mind.)

Posted by: anonymous | May 19, 2011 2:08:57 PM

Compare this ridiculous sentence with the outrageous outcome today in US v. Gilbert in the 11th Circuit and then try to tell me there is any justice anymore.

Posted by: defendergirl | May 19, 2011 2:43:17 PM

The Gilbert opinion can be seen here, if anyone is interested in seeing how twisted our "justice" department is.

Posted by: centrist | May 19, 2011 6:15:44 PM

I represented a defendant against whom Ms. Cederburg testified. (She's brain-dead by the way). He had been arrested by ICE walking out of the delivery room from watching his first child be born. He had no money and he and his wife run a womens clothing store in WA. Ms. Cederburg's testimony assisted in convicting my client, the imposition of a 110 month sentence and almost certain deportation.
While I like the individual who prosecuted Ms. Cederburg and my client, I really think he cut her a heck of a deal at the expense of a whole lot of other less culpable folks. She'll be able to pay this off by selling one of her many high-end horses. The rich are different, they have more money and get better justice (to paraphrase a better writer than myself).

Posted by: Colin M. Stephens | May 19, 2011 6:29:59 PM

Judge Pryor got filibustered for a reason, and it's on full display in his concurrence in Gilbert. He makes Justice Scalia look like Mary Poppins. Meanwhile, Goodwin Liu gets the shaft for being just a little too smart for the conservatives in the Senate. "Extraordinary circumstances?" More like extraordinary BS.

Posted by: The Death Penalty Sucks. | May 19, 2011 7:39:26 PM

Gilbert is an interesting read...not seeing anything outrageous about it, other than the hyperbole used in the dissents.

On topic, though, that sweet plea deal with the rich woman never would have made it past the front office in my district.

Posted by: domino | May 19, 2011 9:13:10 PM

Doug - You need to post on Gilbert. It is truly outrageous. And while I'm sure BOTIS would say the extreme difference in the sentences these 2 drug dealers are serving is because of good prosecutor on the one hand and bad prosecutor on the other, I think the real difference is because of rich, white drug dealer on the one hand and poor black one on the other.

Posted by: reader | May 19, 2011 9:30:07 PM

Nah, I suppose there's nothing wrong with someone going to prison for 8 1/2 years longer than they should.

I especially enjoyed this part of the majority opinion:
"In a drug dealer’s version of “Bring Your Daughter to Work Day,” Gilbert had brought his five-year-old daughter, Keidra, along with him as he plied his trade."

I'm sorry, are we reading the appellate decision, or the government's brief? Leave the rhetoric to the attorneys.

Posted by: centrist | May 19, 2011 11:50:49 PM

Back to the topic at hand, it's nice to know capitalism is still alive and well in Billings, Montana!!

Posted by: centrist | May 19, 2011 11:55:27 PM

Bill, I agree with your entire read above.

Posted by: Josh | May 20, 2011 9:35:58 AM

Josh --

Thanks. Whereabouts do you practice, if you don't mind saying?

Posted by: Bill Otis | May 21, 2011 9:04:57 AM

I attached the photographer website where you can fine multiple photos of Dru at a horse show weeks after her release from house arrest but who still suposedly on parole for another year and 4 months!!! Either she has no respect for her sentencing or her parole officers do not care about enforcing her sentencing. I am disgusted! I have sent information to multiple people but not even sure who to turn photos into to make sure she is not getting away with anything.

Posted by: Billings citizen | Mar 28, 2012 12:37:04 AM

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