High Court to Hear Case on Sentencing Discretion of Judges in Light of Guidelines at Stake

The Dallas Morning News

November 7, 1995

WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court announced Monday that it would decide how much discretion a federal judge has to lower the sentence of a drug trafficker who is subject to a stiff "mandatory minimum" prison sentence but who cooperated with prosecutors.

The case, an appeal by a New Jersey man sentenced for selling cocaine, involves a question that has divided federal courts.

The issue is part of a broader debate over how much discretion judges should retain in setting sentences in light of the increasing popularity of mandatory minimums and sentencing guidelines intended to reduce judicial discretion.

An appeals court ruled that although the defendant in this case had substantially assisted the prosecution, thereby winning him a break on some prison time, federal law barred the judge from going below a 10-year statutory minimum sentence without a request from the prosecutor.

"As a result, the prosecutor, rather than the judge, has the real discretion of deciding the scope of sentencing," Patrick Mullin, lawyer for the defendant, told the justices.

The case of Melendez vs. United States is the second important sentencing case the court has agreed to decide this term.

The court also will hear a sentencing appeal from two Los Angeles police officers convicted in the beating of motorist Rodney King four years ago.

Former police Sgt. Stacey Koon and former Officer Laurence Powell were sentenced to 30 months in prison for federal civil rights violations. An appeals court, however, ruled that the judge improperly departed from federal guidelines and that the sentences should have been at least 70 months.

The issue the court agreed Monday to resolve arose from two provisions of federal law that authorize judges to reduce sentences to reflect a defendant's help to prosecutors.

One provision permits a prosecutor to ask a judge to reduce a sentence that sentencing guidelines would otherwise impose. The other allows the prosecutor to ask a judge to reduce the sentence even further, below the statutory floor established by Congress.

The question is whether the two provisions function separately - as the Justice Department has argued - and require two separate requests from prosecutors.

In this case, Juan Melendez pleaded guilty in 1993 to conspiring to distribute cocaine after he tried to buy a large quantity of the drug from confidential government informants.

Prosecutors told Mr. Melendez that if he snitched on other drug traffickers they would file a motion urging a judge to give him less time than required under the sentencing guidelines. He cooperated, and rather than get from 135 to 168 months under the guidelines, a judge gave him 120 months.

The judge refused to go lower than a mandatory 10-year sentence for the cocaine violation, saying that would have required a separate motion from the prosecutor.

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