Drug War

20 Years for 6 Grams of Pot

A suspended sentence for a $40 crack sale + a probation violation = two decades in prison.

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Jacob Sullum

When we talk about ridiculously long sentences, the culprit usually is mandatory minimum penalties, which strip judges of discretion and require them to impose punishments they may consider excessive. But here is a case where someone got an absurdly harsh sentence for a minor drug offense because a hard-ass judge had too much discretion. "On the night of April 6, 2012," The Baltimore Sun reports, Ronald Hammond "got into an argument with his girlfriend and a neighbor called police." The cops found a bag that contained less than six grams of marijuana (about one-fifth of an ounce), and as a result Hammond got a 20-year prison sentence.

It is hard to understand how that is possible, especially since possessing a small amount of pot is not even a crime in Maryland. Last year Maryland's legislature made possession of 10 grams or less a civil offense punishable by a $100 fine. At the time of Hammond's arrest, it was still a misdemeanor, but a minor one. So minor that District Judge Askew Gatewood scoffed at a prosecutor's request for a 30-day jail sentence. Exaggerating slightly the minuteness of the marijuana, Gatewood said "5.9 grams won't roll you a decent joint" and asked, "Why would I want to spend taxpayers' money putting his little raggedy butt in jail—feeding him, clothing him, cable TV, Internet, prayer, medical expense, clothing—on $5 worth of weed?" Instead Hammond agreed to a $100 fine, not realizing that decision would trigger a suspended 20-year sentence he had received for selling $40 worth of crack to an undercover cop in 2009.

"Sending somebody to prison for $40 of cocaine and not enough marijuana to build a joint seems unfathomable," Mary Price, general counsel at Families Against Mandatory Minimums, tells the Sun. Twenty years is insanely harsh for such a transaction even by the draconian standards of federal law. The cutoff for a five-year mandatory minimum is 28 grams of crack, about an ounce. To qualify for a 20-year mandatory minimum under federal law, a crack dealer would have to sell 10 times that much and have a prior record. In Maryland, by contrast, 20 years is the maximum penalty for selling any amount of crack up to 50 grams. Circuit Judge Lynn Stewart-Mays, who sentenced Hammond after his 2009 arrest, gave him a suspended 20-year sentence, warning that he would have to serve the full term if he violated the terms of his probation.

Hammond's lawyer tells the Sun "Stewart-Mays is known for being tough," often asking defendants to "accept a sentence upfront or face the entirety of a sentence 'on the back end, should there be a violation.'" Did Stewart-Mays have any regrets about that approach in this case? Evidently not:

At a May 21, 2013, hearing, prosecutor Michael Leedy read a summary of Hammond's marijuana arrest and Hammond didn't dispute it. Leedy asked that the court revoke his probation and "impose a substantial portion" of the remaining 19 years, 11 months and 29 days.

Hammond's attorney, Lisa Gladden, told Stewart-Mays that he had done well on probation. "And but for the marijuana charge, he's pretty good," Gladden said.

"This court understands that marijuana is not the crime of the century," Stewart-Mays said. "And the court understands that somehow, some way, not that I agree or disagree…that marijuana has become a little more accepted.

"However, when you are on probation, your freedoms are restricted. So what may be commonly accepted for one, you can't do, because you're on probation."

Hammond's freedoms will be restricted a lot more for a long time unless he succeeds in challenging the sentence on constitutional grounds. Another judge was scheduled to hear that argument today.

Addendum: In case you are wondering why Hammond's lawyer did not point out the consequences of agreeing to a $100 fine after the marijuana bust, the Sun reports that "Hammond arrived for his court date without a lawyer and asked Gatewood [the judge] for a postponement," but "Gatewood said he wouldn't postpone such a trivial case."

[Thanks to Eric Lener for the tip.]

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  1. How much of a high can you get from a $40 amount of crack? I have no expertise in this matter.

    1. You can get as high as your first hit. After that you’re chasing the dragon.

      1. I have no experience with crack, but I think the proper question is for how long can you get high on $40 of crack.

        1. I did it once when someone slipped it into a bowl without my knowledge. Tasted like a burning tire and the high was like hitching a ride on the space shuttle, then jumping off a few miles up. Hated it. Haven’t touched it since.

          1. i dont think anyone’s ever complained that they like coke but wish it would be more intense and not last as long. I really don’t see the point

        2. Maybe 30 minutes if you milk it.

  2. “Instead Hammond agreed to a $100 fine, not realizing that decision would trigger a suspended 20-year sentence he had received for selling $40 worth of crack to an undercover cop in 2009.”

    Was Hammond’s *lawyer* smoking crack? How is this not ineffective assistance of counsel?

    1. See my addendum.

      1. What the fuck? I mean, really? I mean, seriously, what the fucking fuck?

        1. That does deserve a facepalm. The judge being way too flippant, or being ignorant of the defendent’s record.

        2. Have you ever watched a criminal court in action?

          I have and this doesn’t fucking surprise me one bit.

          Every day, there’s a stack of cases, and the judges, prosecutors and public defenders all want to get their stack cleared, preferably before 3PM.

          The prosecutor has no fucking clue about the defendant, the victim (if one even exists), and the community these people swim in. It’s a folder. And he wants to get that folder of his desk as quickly as possible. The best case is getting the defendant to admit guilt and accept a smaller punishment than the statutory maximum.

          The judge doesn’t know what’s going on either. The probation department is supposed to assemble a case file. The prosecutor gives them a bunch of papers, and maybe the probation department aparatchnik collects some other data, or maybe not. Unless the defendant is paying for a good lawyer, the defense ain’t filing bupkis!

          So the judge sees a file consisting primarily of what the prosecutor wants him to see.

          It’s a factory, operated by people who have no idea how their actions affect product quality and the defendant is sausage being worked over by the machines controlled by the operators.

          The defendant often is utterly clueless what levers are accessible to him; has no idea what the consequences of inaction are; and is nervous/scared enough that they grab any rope, even if it’s a coral snake.

          1. Sounds like the justice system in Canada, not to mention the mental health system – a similarity in origin and process of convergence Foucault points out has been over 150 years in the making.

      2. …but “Gatewood said he wouldn’t postpone such a trivial case.”

        Ouch.

      3. I actually have more problem of what Gatewood did than I do Stewart-Mays. Gatewood had to know Hammond’s priors and that he was on probation. Therefore, this case was no longer “trivial” because Gatewood HAD to know that Hammond pleading would result in a probation violation. I truly see this case being tossed because of Gatewood’s actions.

  3. “5.9 grams won’t roll you a decent joint”

    Uh, what? I could roll a half a dozen decent joints off that much weed. Unless by “decent” you mean something as thick as your thumb.

    1. That is why I said Gatewood was “exaggerating slightly” the minuteness of the marijuana.

    2. Judge likes to get irie.

    3. I was thinking the same. I could roll a fat, fat doobie with five grams and have plenty left over. Not that I would. Waste of resin. I likes muh glass.

      Still and all, five grams is jack shit. Not even a quarter.

      I love the alt-text. Sullum taking pics of his own weed to show us five grams. Shows dedication. For journalism!

  4. Hammond’s children are now 4 and 2, and ask when they visit him why he isn’t home.

    “Daddy was bad, and this is what happens when you’re bad,” he tells them.

    Yeah. Prosecutors should be barred from being judges.

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  6. It’s sad when the prosecutor isn’t being too terrible and the judge is actually on your side, but you still get railroaded by some other judge from 5 years ago.

  7. got into an argument with his girlfriend and a neighbor called police

    Fucking people need to mind their own business. Assuming they were just yelling at each other and the neighbor didn’t see any significant violence happening.

    1. I’ve had neighbors who would call the cops for just about anything. And the cops would cheerfully show up because it was an excuse to fuck with people (me, especially). But whenever I called the cops, like after my apartment was broken into, they treated me like I was wasting their time. After thinking about it, I’m guessing that the neighbor must have had friends or family in the department. That’s the only reason I can think of as to why someone would trust the cops, and why the cops would entertain a person who called them all the time.

      1. One of the nice things about lazy cops is that they don’t want to be bothered by stupid bullshit like neighbors calling for no good reason. I’ve talked to a few who have no patience for that sort of thing. Or calls about shots fired. Are you in a dense residential neighborhood? Did someone shoot at you? Then why the fuck are you calling?

        One of the best calls I saw when I used to read the police logs in the local paper was someone who called because there was a car with out of state plates in their neighbors driveway. Then there was the old woman who called because she was sure her cat had seen something alarming out the window.

        1. My favorite was my mother and her neighbors had been calling for weeks about the horrific smell coming from a nearby garage. The cops blew them off for more than a month. When the cops finally decided to investigate (mainly to get the neighborhood to stop calling–and at this point it was the whole neighborhood), they found a murdered guy in the garage well on his way to gooey pudding-hood.

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  10. The “Treason for Profit” criminal cartel at work, since only a criminal, traitor or psychopath would destroy a fellow citizens life over a plant. When are the traitors in power going to face their trial and execution? Does it have to be after the revolution?

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