September 17, 2008
New York University School of Laws Center on the Administration of Criminal Law filed an amicus curiae brief today in the United States District Court for the District of Utah. The brief supports a petition to vacate, set aside, or correct petitioners sentence in U.S. v. Angelos, in which petitioner Weldon Angelos, who had no prior convictions, was sentenced to 55 years in prison for selling several hundred dollars worth of marijuana on two occasions while carrying a gun, and for possessing a gun in his home on another occasion.
Under the initial indictment, Angelos would have been subject to a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison. But when he refused a plea offer, prosecutors indicted Angelos on five separate charges of possessing a firearm in connection with a drug offense, which requires a sentence of at least five years in prison for the first offense and at least 25 years for each subsequent offense. He was convicted on three of these counts, leading to his mandatory minimum of 55 years in prison.
Because of the manner in which the prosecutor chose to charge this case, Mr. Angelos who had no criminal record received a mandatory minimum sentence of 55 years, said Anthony Barkow, who is the Centers executive director and who was a federal prosecutor for 12 years. The charging decision was excessive, a characterization agreed upon by every actor to have considered the appropriate sentence for Mr. Angeloss conduct the jury, the judge, a group of 163 former judges and high-ranking Department of Justice officials, and even the Department of Justice as reflected in its own internal policies except for the prosecutors in this case. As the Centers brief explains, the sentence violated the Eighth Amendment, separation-of- powers principles, and the Department of Justices own internal charging policies, and deviated from the normal practices of other United States Attorneys Offices.
The brief argues that the sentence violates the Eighth Amendments prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, which the district court itself acknowledged, and that the courts reliance on a case with distinguishable facts and questionable precedential value was misplaced. The brief further urges that the sentence violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fifth Amendment, which requires that prosecutorial discretion be exercised in a manner that is not arbitrary and does not single out a defendant for irrational and unjust treatment. It also points out that separation-of-powers principles prohibit the uniting of the power to prosecute and the power to sentence within a single branch, and such an occurrence compels the judicial branch to impose just sentences.
Mr. Angelos was charged unfairly and arbitrarily by the prosecution, and the district court imposed the sentence it did because it believed it lacked discretion to do anything less, the brief stated. That belief was erroneous. There was no rational basis to charge Mr. Angelos so excessively and arbitrarily, no plausible reason to pursue a sentence of more than 50 years for a first-time non-violent offender.
Barkow, along with the Centers faculty director, NYU School of Law Professor Rachel Barkow, prepared the brief in partnership with the law firm of Jenner & Block.
The Center on the Administration of Criminal Law at New York University School of Law is an apolitical organization dedicated to defining good government practices in criminal prosecutions through academic research, litigation, and participation in the formulation of public policy. The Center is committed to identifying the best prosecutorial practices and suggesting avenues of reform. The Centers litigation practice aims to use its empirical research and experience with criminal justice to assist in important criminal justice cases at all levels, concentrating on cases in which exercises of prosecutorial discretion raise significant substantive legal issues.
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School of Law
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