Drug War

76-Year-Old Asks SCOTUS to Overturn Life Sentence for 37 Pot Plants

Lee Carroll Brooker, a victim of Alabama's habitual offender law, argues that his punishment violates the Eighth Amendment.

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WTVY

On Friday the Supreme Court considered whether it should hear an appeal by a 76-year-old Alabama man who is serving a prison sentence of life without parole for growing a few dozen marijuana plants that he says were intended for his own medical use. Lee Carroll Brooker, a disabled veteran who suffers from chronic pain, got that jaw-dropping penalty in 2014 thanks to Alabama's Habitual Felony Offender Act, which imposes a mandatory life-without-parole sentence on anyone with three prior felony convictions, including one or more Class A felonies, who is convicted of another Class A felony. Brooker's prior convictions stemmed from a series of armed robberies he committed in Florida two decades before police in Dothan, Alabama, found his marijuana garden—crimes for which he served 10 years in prison.

Brooker's case is unusual but by no means unique. In 2013 the American Civil Liberties Union identified thousands of nonviolent offenders serving sentences of life without parole in American prisons. In every case the explanation was a habitual offender law like Alabama's.

The draconian sentence is not the only striking aspect of Brooker's case. A police officer visited the house that Brooker shared with his son, Darren, in 2011, supposedly looking for stolen bicycles. The officer did not have a warrant, but he said he had written permission to search the house from Darren Brooker, the owner, and later he testified that the elder Brooker also consented to the search—a crucial point, since the Supreme Court has said a resident who is present at the time of a warrantless search has a Fourth Amendment right to turn police away even if his roommate has consented. Lee Brooker denied that he gave permission for the search, and it certainly seems odd that he would knowing what police would find. But the trial judge, ruling on a motion to exclude the evidence from the search, accepted the cop's account.

The way police measured the amount of marijuana Brooker possessed—weighing all of the plant material, including nonpsychoactive stalks and leaves—is also questionable, and it may have made a crucial difference, since the official weight of the "marijuana" was 2.8 pounds, about half a pound more than the cutoff for charging him with trafficking, a felony, as opposed to mere possession, a misdemeanor. If police had been more selective when they weighed the plants, the maximum penalty would have been a year in jail.

Even if police had thrown everything on the scale, Brooker could have received a much lighter penalty if prosecutors had not chosen to introduce evidence of his Florida convictions during the sentencing phase. Darren Brooker was convicted of marijuana trafficking based on the same garden in 2013, but he received a suspended five-year sentence, which will be lifted after he satisfactorily completes five years of probation. That the same crime in the same location would be punished with life in prison for one man and no time behind bars for another seems utterly arbitrary.

Even Roy Moore, the chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court and a hardline conservative who is not known for his bleeding heart, was appalled by Brooker's life sentence. Although the court upheld the penalty in 2015, Moore wrote a concurring opinion highlighting its disproportionality:

I write separately because I believe Brooker's sentence is excessive and unjustified. In imposing the sentence, the judge stated: "[I]f the Court could sentence you to a term that is less than life without parole, I would. However, the law is very specific as to the sentence in this case. There is no discretion by the Court." Under circumstances like those of Brooker's arrest and conviction, a trial court should have the discretion to impose a less severe sentence than life imprisonment without the possibility of parole….

Brooker's sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for a nonviolent, drug-related crime reveals grave flaws in our statutory sentencing scheme. I urge the legislature to revisit that statutory sentencing scheme to determine whether it serves an appropriate purpose.

The question for the U.S. Supreme Court, should it decide to take up the case, is whether Brooker's life sentence is so "grossly disproportionate" that it violates the Eighth Amendment's ban on "cruel and unusual punishments." In an editorial last week, The New York Times argued that "Mr. Brooker's punishment for marijuana possession is the definition of cruel and unusual," since "he received a punishment typically reserved for the most violent crimes, like murder, rape and terrorism, even though he poses no threat to society." It noted that "the trial court even allowed him to remain free while he awaited his sentencing."

In a brief that Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) filed on Brooker's behalf, the group notes that "the elimination of all judicial discretion [in sentencing] can lead to arbitrary, extreme, and unfair punishments" that "undermin[e] faith in the judicial system." It argues that "mandatory minimums impose substantial costs for little deterrent benefit," because research indicates that the likelihood of punishment matters more than its severity. "If the Court does not define the constitutional limits on severe sentences," FAMM warns, "States without a legislative interest in reform may continue to impose harsh, irrational, and unconstitutional sentences."

Update: The Supreme Court has declined to hear Brooker's appeal.

NEXT: Title IX: The Federal Law That Started a War Against Speech, Sex, and Students

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  1. That the same crime in the same location would be punished with life in prison for one man and no time behind bars for another seems utterly arbitrary.

    Here in America that is referred to as “rule of law”.

    1. Except when said law (the war on some drugs) is itself in violation of a higher law (the constitution). Why did the constitution have to be amended to allow banning alcohol but not to ban other less harmful drugs?

      1. What about this: The Constitution didn’t have to be amended to ban alcohol, they just wanted the ban to be more stable than Congressional action under the commerce clause, which could have been undone at any time.

        1. Except the Commerce Clause as understood by everyone until Raich decided it was so mutable as to be infinitely applicable couldn’t ban in-state production and consumption and possession.

          Congress in the 20s could have banned transporting booze across state lines, under the law of the time – but they couldn’t ban it inside states, as that is not interstate commerce.

          (Again, under Raich, now non-interstate non-commerce is “interstate commerce”, making a mockery of the entire document, but that’s a different, modern matter.)

          1. That isn’t *Raich* (2005). *Raich* just reaffirmed Wickard v. Filburn (1942).

            (BTW, this is making me crazy: how do I use this commenting software? In particular, how do I format – itals and so on – and how do I get notified of responses?)

            1. It’s called “HTML”.

        2. True. Maine banned th’ Devil’s Brew back before the Civil War and the Depression attending withdrawal of British capital from State bonds and such hit them extra hard. Prohibitionists formed their own party after being jacked around by the DemoGOP (just like today). But much is unmentioned, like the tendency to add morphine to liquor whenever China cracked down on opiates, and the frequent use of alcohol as a palliative for opiate withdrawal sickness. Even today withdrawal sickness is grossly misunderstood, but Keith Richards describes aspects of it in a biography. The Panic of 1907 occurred amid a flurry of prohibitionist coercion, and by 1911, when China again cracked down on opiates, prohibitionism had become a sort of religion much like econaziism or the war on women’s abortion rights.

          1. And then there’s the opioid postwithdrawal limbic dysregulation that can persist for months or years, which, along with a lot of other crap, gets dismissed as a psychiatric symptom of being a drug addict, despite the fact that it’s entirely predictable from the way that opioids affect the nervous system and may manifest in cases where there is otherwise a total absence of the addiction syndrome. Most drug addicts that I’ve seen talking about it also foolishly conflated this neurologic impairment with the drug addiction syndrome. The end.

    2. May I inquire as to the two men’s ancestors’ previous condition of servitude? Many of these seeming contradictions are easily resolved in light of Christian National Socialist racial laws (whereby some animals are more equal than others).

  2. Life in prison for some plants. We are such an enlightened species.

    1. I know, it’s crazy. And how long will the plants last in prison, btw? They probably won’t even water them.

    2. And less than three pounds from 37 LIVE Plants, including stem and leaf? Most of them were probably not flowering, or maybe even comes. He probably actually had a a crop of a handful of one at a time and they must have been tiny. Because once that shit is cut down and dried, three pounds becomes maybe several ounces. That whole prosecution is bullshit.

      1. It’s a religion, and therefore its coercive practice is protected under the First Amendment, just like the tortures of the Inquisition of the new lynch mobs declaring meteorology a form of hate speech. Elevating the pseudoscience of religious climatology into a constitutionally mandated vehicle for coercive redistribution of confiscated values will, naturally, require that troopers make dead examples of a few deniers just as they shoot children–especially brown kids–to enforce the superstitious belief that marijuana is Satan’s demonic possession. Observe that when a cop shoots a child in the back it’s never a “felony.” Yet beer was a felony by March 3, 1929, halleluliah!

  3. Now, take my case. They hung me up here five years ago. Every night, they take me down for twenty minutes, then they hang me up again, which I regard as very fair, in view of what I done, and, if nothing else, it’s taught me to respect the Romans, and it’s taught me… that you’ll never get anywhere in this life, unless you’re prepared to do a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay!

  4. Ready for a 7-1 opinion (Sotomayor in dissent) against him.

    1. Sotomayor is actually pretty good on finding in favor of criminal defendants (unless a gun is involved – maybe my bias). The real question is whether the supreme court will go against prior precedent that states (paraphrased) “Since we do much worse to people this isn’t cruel or unusual”.

  5. Yet another reminder why one shouldn’t skip jury duty. You might find an opportunity to save someone like this.

    1. In Texas courts screen potential nullifiers by asking prospective jurors if, as a matter of revealed faith, they believe everything a cop utters? YES or NO?

  6. Such an enlightened society.

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  9. “Even Roy Moore [etc.]”

    I love these formulations – “even this person I’ve already stereotyped in accordance with my own narrative has acted contrary to the stereotype!”

    1. It figures you’d find Roy one of your favs, since one of his claims to notoriety is getting uppity about posting the ten commandments on government property.

      1. Your choice of the term “uppity” to describe someone who disobeyed a federal court is very telling.

        It shows the true relationship between the federal courts and the people, and the kind of cringing servility these courts expect from the benighted peasantry.

        1. Your choosing to defend someone who wants to merge state and religion is also telling. And if you think my wanting them separate makes me a statist puppet, that is even more telling. All Hail Eddie the First and Last!

    2. If you don’t consider Roy Moore to be an idiot, you’re without hope. That’s not opinion, it’s truth.

      1. “Idiot judge goes soft on crime.”

      2. Help me out, what makes him idiotic?

        Try not to use a definition under which wouldn’t also make Abraham Lincoln idiotic. After all Lincoln didn’t think the US Supreme Court’s decisions were the law of the land either, and Lincoln even disobeyed a federal judge.

        1. Eddie, doesn’t your fav book say something about Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s? Why do you want to merge government and religion? There can be only one reason.

          1. Overwrought handwringing. As the Abrahamic religions and middle-eastern and Mediterranean social codes are the basis of the vast majority of our legal system, there is nothing unusual about employing historical symbolism in the decoration of our Governmental spaces. Who cares. If some folks impart greater meaning to that symbolism it is no impact on those who do not. Nothing is forced to believe anything. Anyone who is offended by a depiction of the ten commandments, quotes from the Quran, Confusion sayings, or Buddhist philosophy is barely a thinking creature. Having religious depictions in governmental spaces is so far removed from an actual “State establishment of religion” that to fret over it is nothing more than screaming your ignorance of history to the world.
            Our anti-establishment cause comes from a time when people were friggin arrested and executed for not practicing the right religion. Grow up, cupcake, you have it shockingly easy.

            1. Ah yes, so when city councils drop the beginning prayer rather than allow anon-Christian prayers, that’s just proper.

              Anyone who thinks their religion can only be validated by State endorsement is one doubtful Thomas, that’s for sure.

              1. I notice that you failed to justify your charge that Roy Moore is an “idiot.”

                Unless we have a new definition of “idiot” – “someone with different views from mine.”

                Was Abraham Lincoln “uppity” or an “idiot” for defying federal courts?

                I mean, perhaps he was wrong, but was he a moron?

                1. He may not be an idiot, but he’s certainly immoral. A moral human would resign before he would impose such a sentence. He might also try civil disobedience.

          2. I think the second part, “render to God what is God’s,” is the more important part of the message.

  10. Marijuana should be decriminalized, period. That said, he would not be in this predicament if he had not committed armed robberies. When someone tries to take the property and perhaps life of another with force then tough shit Sherlock.

    1. Perhaps a speeder doing 10 over on the freeway should be thrown in jail because they had a DUI 20 years ago – for which they paid their fines and served whatever punishment.
      Perhaps that guy that got a jaywalking ticket should be in prison because he got an assault and battery conviction 20 years ago, even though he paid his fine and did his time.

      Or maybe, just maybe, the crime was possession of MJ plants, and he should be judged for that “crime” and that crime alone.

      1. All of these ” 3 strikes” “habitual” statutes stink of double jeopardy. Essentially you’re sentenced for the same crime twice.

        1. Nope.

          Double jeopardy is being tried for the same crime twice (or more, “until they get a conviction”, basically, allowing the State to wear innocent people down as a punishment or letting people never be sure they’re finally safe from prosecution).

          A different sentence because of previous felony convictions (thus “habitual criminal” in the law’s title) is not double jeopardy.

          It might be bad policy – it definitely is when it’s mandatory – but it simply is not double jeopardy.

        2. Crime, comrade? Where is the victim?

    2. The proper response to armed robbery, IMNSHO, is the death penalty—without appeals. Do it French Revolutionary style. A quick trial, a trip across town in a tumbril, and a shave with the National Razor.

      1. Not to be for armed robbery, but no appeals and the death penalty means that you have 100% confidence in the state. I for one don’t have that level of confidence so I think that a length prison term with the right to appeal is fine in my book.

      2. Someone gives the state far more trust than it has earned. Forgive me if I’m not so naive.

    3. Well, actually, government shouldn’t be involved in marijuana at all. Controlling substances (let alone, plants) – how friggin idiotic can you get?

    4. The problem is that the “trying” is successful when taxation has placed at the command of superstitious looter politicians an infinite number of klannish troopers all assured immunity for murder and armed to the teeth by the political statw, with infinite numbers of reinforcements at their beck and call. The tough shit is experienced by anyone who so much as obeys slowly, and the minions have carte blanche to kill any who come to the aid of their neighbors in resisting these monsters.
      One could vote libertarian, but the Dems and Republicans–who passed these laws and never lie–assure us that the law-changing exercise of suffrage is “wasting” a vote that could otherwise help put a bullet though your child’s back.

  11. RE: 76-Year-Old Asks SCOTUS to Overturn Life Sentence for 37 Pot Plants
    Lee Carroll Brooker, a victim of Alabama’s habitual offender law, argues that his punishment violates the Eighth Amendment.

    We should never legalize drugs for two reasons.
    First, it allow the individual to choose for himself whether to ingest drugs. This means the person is personally responsible for his actions. Only bureaucrats and politicians should be responsible for an individual’s actions. Every good socialist knows this.
    Secondly, if drugs were legal, about half the prison population would be released. Then all those kind and sensitive government prison guards would be out of work, not to mention all those wise and resourceful DEA personnel would have to find another job.
    Worse than all of that, the taxpayers would save millions, if not billions of dollars
    Who in their right mind would want all that?

    1. Before those laws were enacted, there were hardly any inmates at all–and certainly none for victimless mischief. But without insane cops sent by looter politicians to look for opportunities to shoot our pets, children and selves, where would attorneys scrape up enough litigation to pay off their yachts?

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  13. 1) Mandatory minimums are bad.
    2) 37 plants is way more than “personal use” plausibly justifies, so his claim sounds weird.
    3) If the total weight of all plant matter was only 2.8 pounds, those were very small plants indeed. Pretty sure if you include stalks and leaves, one or at most two adult plants should mass that.

  14. If you discovered your kid had some plants in the yard, mowed them down and put the clippings in the trash, looter politicians and prosecutors could send thugs with guns to dig up the roots, confiscate your home through asset-forfeiture “sharing,” comrade, and send you to prison while liable for the mortgage on the confiscated home. That’s the law in Texas, thanks to politicians like John Connally, Adolph Briscoe, Mark White, Bill Clements and George Bush and their political parties.

  15. You guys have lost credibility steadily. To wit; On Friday the Supreme Court considered whether it should hear an appeal by a 76-year-old Alabama man who is serving a prison sentence of life without parole for growing a few dozen marijuana plants that he says were intended for his own medical use.

    No – he’s serving life without parole because he had serious priors. Not victimless crimes. Serious shit. Should he go down for growing weed? Of course not. But did he go down for growing weed? No. WTF people? Your lead-in is total b.s. Why do you do this? Isn’t there enough of this bait-&-switch out there already?

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