Supreme Court Hears Challenge to Sentencing Guidelines

Associated Press
The Press of Atlantic City
February 28, 1996

A federal judge can't lower a cooperating defendant's sentence below the minimum unless prosecutors explicitly request it, a government attorney argued Tuesday before the U.S. Supreme Court.

The attorney for the defendant in the New Jersey case countered that a judge has the leeway to sentence below the minimum based only upon a government motion to revise the defendant's sentence downward.

Analysts say the case involving Juan Melendez, 29, of New York, is crucial to ensure that sentencing guidelines are applied evenly to all defendants.

U.S. District Judge H. Lee Sarokin sentenced Melendez to 10 years after Melendez pleaded guilty in 1993 to buying large quantities of cocaine from Customs Service informants.

Prosecutors said at least part of the conspiracy occurred in New Jersey.

Sentencing guidelines prescribed a sentence of 11 years and three months to 14 years for Melendez. But prosecutors followed their plea bargain promise to urge the judge for a lower sentence because of Melendez's cooperation.

The judge ruled that the sentence couldn't go below the statutory 10-year minimum for a cocaine-distribution conspiracy exceeding 50 kilograms without a separate request by prosecutors. The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that ruling.

Irving L. Gornstein, assistant to the U.S. Solicitor General, told the Supreme Court on Tuesday that Melendez's arguments are inconsistent with the sentencing language.

Gornstein said some assistance by defendants falls short of meriting a prosecutor's motion seeking a sentence below the mandatory minimum as well as down from the guidelines.

"Substantial assistance is necessary but not sufficient to depart from the statutory minimum," Gornstein said.

"There has to be a government request for a sentence below the statutory minimum," Gornstein said. "The statutory minimum penalties are so important and deemed so important that you need a very clear and explicit statement by the government."

Patrick A. Mullin, a Hackensack attorney representing Melendez, said the U.S. Sentencing Commission set up a one-track procedure for a prosecutor's motion.

"What the guidelines do is require the government to bring a motion based on a defendant's substantial assistance," Mullin said. "The commission devised a scheme where only one motion has to be brought."

The case is Melendez vs. U.S., 95-5661.

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