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June 8, 2015

Can any significant federal prison sentence truly be "reasonable" for any of the Kettle Falls Five marijuana defendants?

Download (2)The question in the title of this post is a serious question I have in light of the remarkable federal marijuana prosecution that reaches sentencing in Washington state later this week.  The case involves the so-called "Kettle Falls Five," a group of medical marijuana patients subject (somewhat mysteriously) to aggressive federal criminal prosecution.  Regular readers may recall prior posts about the case; this new lengthy Jacob Sullum Forbes piece, headlined "In A State Where Marijuana Is Legal, Three Patients Await Sentencing For Growing Their Own Medicine," provides this review and update:

During their trial at the federal courthouse in Spokane last March, Rhonda Firestack-Harvey and her two fellow defendants—her son, Rolland Gregg, and his wife, Michelle Gregg—were not allowed to explain why they were openly growing marijuana on a plot in rural northeastern Washington marked by a big green cross that was visible from the air. According to a pretrial ruling, it was irrelevant that they were using marijuana for medical purposes, as permitted by state law, since federal law recognizes no legitimate use for the plant. But now that Firestack-Harvey and the Greggs have been convicted, they are free to talk about their motivation, and it might even make a difference when they are sentenced next Thursday.

Federal drug agents raided the marijuana garden, which was located outside Firestack-Harvey’s home near Kettle Falls, in 2012. In addition to the three defendants who are scheduled to be sentenced next week, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Washington charged Firestack-Harvey’s husband, Larry Harvey, and a family friend, Jason Zucker. Dubbed the Kettle Falls Five, all had doctor’s letters recommending marijuana for treatment of various conditions, including gout, anorexia, rheumatoid arthritis, degenerative disc disease, and chronic pain from a broken back. Last February prosecutors dropped the charges against Harvey because he has terminal cancer. Zucker, who had a prior marijuana conviction, pleaded guilty just before the trial and agreed to testify against the other defendants in exchange for a 16-month sentence, which was much shorter than the 15-year term he could have received in light of his criminal history....

In the end, after hearing testimony for five days and deliberating for one, the jurors acquitted the defendants of almost all the charges against them, which could have sent them to prison for 10 years or more. “They all saw what was going on,” Telfeyan says. “They understood what the facts were, and they came back with a verdict exactly consistent with what actually happened, which was just a family growing medical marijuana for their own personal use.”

The jury rejected allegations that the defendants distributed marijuana and conspired to do so, that they grew more than 100 plants (the cutoff for a five-year mandatory minimum) over the course of two years, that they used firearms (the Harveys’ hunting guns) in connection with a drug crime (another five-year mandatory minimum), and that Firestack-Harvey maintained a place (i.e., the home she shared with her husband) for the purpose of manufacturing and distributing marijuana. The one remaining charge — cultivation of more than 50 but fewer than 100 plants — does not carry a mandatory minimum penalty, which gives Rice broad discretion when he sentences Firestack-Harvey and the Greggs next Thursday. He can even consider the reason they were growing marijuana.

“But for state-sanctioned medical prescriptions authorizing each member of the family to grow 15 marijuana plants, this family would not be before the Court today,” the defense says in a sentencing memo filed last week [available here]. “Due to the exemplary contributions each family member has made to this society, their lack of criminal records, and the unique role state-sanctioned medical authorizations played in this case, Defendants respectfully seek a probationary sentence with no incarceration.”

The federal probation office recommended sentences of 15 to 21 months, while the prosecution is seeking 41 to 51 months [gov sentencing memo here], based mainly on allegations that were rejected by the jury, including cultivation in 2011 as well as 2012.  To give you a sense of how realistic the government’s assumptions are, it estimates that each plant grown in 2011 produced more than a kilogram of marijuana. As the defense notes, that figure “flies in the face of both empirical reality and legal precedent,” since “numerous courts have recognized that a marijuana plant cannot yield anywhere near 1 kilogram of usable marijuana.” At one point in its sentencing memo, the prosecution even claims the defendants somehow managed to produce “1000 kilograms per plant.” I assume that’s a typo, but who knows? The government also thinks the 2012 harvest should be measured by the weight of the plants, including leaves, stems, water, and clinging dirt.

The prosecution’s insistence that Firestack-Harvey and the Greggs deserve to spend at least three and a half years in prison is puzzling, as is its willingness to posit super-productive, science fictional marijuana plants in service of that goal. But this case has been a puzzle from the beginning.

I assume that this federal prosecution started because federal authorities thought the defendants here were doing a whole lot more than what the feds were able to prove in court.  For that reason, I can sort of understand why the feds started this prosecution way back in early 2012.  But now, three years later, with the defendants acquitted on most charges (and now with lots of persons selling lots of recreational marijuana within the state), I have a very hard time understanding just how the feds can think a lengthy prison sentence is "not greater than necessary" for these defendants in light of the nature and circumstances of the offense and the history and characteristics of these defendants.

I have in the excerpt above links to the parties' sentencing briefs, and I sincerely seek input on the question in the title of this post in light of some of the arguments made thereing.  Notably, the government's sentencing memo is only focused on dickering over the applicable guideline range; it does not appear to make any formal arguments for a signficant prison sentence in light of all the 3553(a) sentencing factos that judges now must consider after Booker.  So I suppose it is still possible that even the government will, come the actual sentencing later this week, acknowledge that this remarkable case does not justify any significant federal prison sentence for any of the defendants with no criminal history.  But if the government seeks a prison term, and if the judge imposes a prison term, I would be ready and eager to argue on appeal for these defendants that such a punishment cannot possibly be reasonable in light of all the sentencing commands Congress put into 3553(a).

Prior related posts:

June 8, 2015 at 11:25 AM | Permalink

Comments

Rule 702 applies to expert testimony (the Daubert Standard). However, underneath this Rule is a constitutional due process right to a fair hearing, a Fifth Amendment procedural right, not a substantive right.

If a substance is banned, but substances that are literally 10,000 more harmful are legal and advertised, that is lawyer quackery and garbage science. Marijuana kills 50 people a year by car crashes and impairment of driving. Tobacco and alcohol kill 400,000 and 100,000 people a year, most of them directly. Half the murderers are drunk, as are half the murder victims. Half the suicides are drunk. Most domestic disputes have a drunk person involved. Alcohol is the single most crimogenic substance on earth. We talk about refined research teasing out the secular effects of lead on long term trends in crime. Alcohol is right there in the blood of victims and criminals in levels above the legal limit.

The entire prosecution is quackery, and should be sanctioned by the judge, with costs from the personal assets of the prosecutor. To deter.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Jun 8, 2015 4:33:48 PM

Yet again, temperance, wisdom and justice get short shrift in get-tough, law-and-order, lock-'em-up Incarceration Nation. Irrelevant that the pot was medicinal indeed.

Let me guess...the judge (more than likely a former prosecutor) who ruled the motive (medicine) was irrelevant to the trial will determine the sentence. And the sentence will emerge from sentencing guidelines fashioned for prosecutors by former prosecutors (legislators) and tended to by other former prosecutors (judges).

Posted by: John K | Jun 9, 2015 8:42:03 AM

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