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.]