Recently in Drug Crimes Category

October 15, 2009

Jose Padilla Asks the Supremes to Void HIs Guilty Plea

Jose Padilla pleaded guilty in Kentucky to 3 felony drug charges, in exchange for the state agreeing to drop a fourth charge. According to Padilla, his lawyer never told him that his guilty plea would almost surely mean that he will be deported after he serves his sentence.  Padilla has petitioned for the right to set aside his guilty plea and go to trial. His case is now awaiting a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Padilla's claim involves the SIxth Amendment right to counsel in criminal cases. The Court has to decide whether defense attorenys are constitutionally deficient if they fail to advise defendants about the likely collateral legal consequences of guilty pleas. If the Supreme Court rules in Padilla's favor, the question of whether Padilla's attorney in fact failed to advise him that he'd probably be deported is a matter that a lower court will have to decide after conducting a hearing. 

Had I been in Padilla's position, I think I would have expected my attorney to know and tell me that if I pleaded guilty I'd probably be deported.  It seems reasonable to expect all defense attorneys to live up to that standard. They're the paid professionals, and they ought to know or be willing to find out about the likely legal consequences of guilty pleas before giving legal advice to clients. 

August 25, 2009

Michael Jackson's Death Ruled a Homicide

The L.A. County Coroner has ruled Michael Jackson's death a homicide. Many people confuse homicide with murder, but the term homicide refers to any killing of one person by another, legal or not. Thus, a homicide includes killings done in self-defense. All murders are homicides, but certainly not all homicides are murders.

The coroner's ruling that Michael Jackson's case was a homicide does not mean that someone will be charged with murder.  It's far more likely that at least one of Jackson's doctors will be charged with involuntary manslaughter.  This would require a prosecutor to prove that a doctor's gross negligence in medicating Jackson caused his death.

The most likely defendant is Dr. Conrad Murray, who apparently administered the combination of drugs that caused Jackson's death.  If so, one can feel sorry for Dr. Murray.  Over the years, countless doctors probably helped Jackson abuse drugs.  Poor Dr. Murray had the bad luck to be Jackson's doctor when his body was unable to survive the latest dose.  

June 26, 2009

Melendez-Diaz Raises the 6th Amendment's Price Tag

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Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts, decided by the U.S. Supreme Court on June 25, 2009, is the latest salvo in the Sixth Amendment Wars.  Since 2004, one of the most divisive issues the Court has faced has concerned the meaning of the 6th Amendment's "Confrontation Clause."  So far, the Scalia-led majority insisted that the prosecution produce live witnesses instead of hearsay, and Scalia carried the day again in Melendez-Diaz.

The case involved the admissibility of certificates prepared by government lab technicians and stating under oath that the powder that police officers had seized was cocaine.  The prosecutor offered the certificates into evidence in lieu of calling the lab technician who had performed the test, and the Court ruled that doing so violated the 6th Amendment and invalidated the conviction.

The decision has the potential to make drug prosecutions too costly to pursue.  Many testing labs are already hard-pressed to keep up with the demands for test results.  If the technicians who carry out the testing also have to sit around courthouses waiting to testify, the backlogs will grow longer. The costs of the decision may be prohibitively high in rural states, where only one or two labs run tests for the entire state.  And when substances are sent to the FBI in Washington, D.C. for testing, Melendez-Diaz requires technicians to travel all over the country to testify regarding test results that they probably can't recall -- other than by looking at their certificate, anyway. 

A spokesperson for a national DIstrict Attorneys organization calls the decision a "train wreck" for prosecutors, and he may be right.  However, Justice Scalia has the mind-set of a junkyard dog when it comes to the protection of his 2004 Crawford decision To paraphrase an old homily, Scalia seems to believe that it is better that 99 defendants go free than one bit of hearsay escapes the 6th Amendment.              

May 19, 2009

Skillicorn and the Death Penalty

Dennis Skillicorn is scheduled to be put to death in Missouri on Wednesday, 20 May 2009.  But the likelihood that Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon will cancel the execution and even declare a moratorium on its use has grown now that even Missouri legislators who support the death penalty have admitted to having second thoughts about executing Skillicorn.

Skillicorn has an ugly and violent history: He was sentenced to death for participating in the 1994 robbery/murder of Richard Drummond, though Skillicorn was not the actual killer.  Skillicorn also participated in at least two other murders, though again, his accomplices carried out the killings.

Evil though his past may be, Skillicorn's situation still raises questions about the fairness of the death penalty. If he did not personally kill anyone, is he really among the "worst of the worst?" Is he deserving of mercy because he has been a model prisoner who has been of service to other prisoners as well as prison officials?  Is the sober Skillicorn still the same person as the apparently drug-addled younger man who committed the awful crimes?     

Whether Skillicorn is executed as scheduled or allowed to live, the fact that even death penalty supporters are debating questions such as these seems to herald a future in which the death penalty ceases to exist in the United States.

May 7, 2009

Marijuana Law Reform

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Many supporters of marijuana law reform think that the stars are aligned as never before in their favor.  They may be right.  Throughout the country, liberal cultural trends are evident in the removal of laws banning gay marriage and in the continued decline in the imposition and use of the death penalty.  Reform of marijuana laws may not be far behind.

Marijuana use is presently regulated by an array of incoherent laws.  For example, 13 states (including California) treat the possession of a small amount of marijuana as a non-arrestable offense punishable by no more than a fine of $100.  Yet the penalty for marijuana use in other states may consist of a fine of up to $1000 and a year in jail.  And while 12 states have legalized the use of marijuana for medical purposes, the feds may charge marijuana medical dispensers with violations of federal law.

If the laws criminalizing marijuana use are in disarray, the government's lengthy and costly efforts to curtail its use have been largely ineffective.  Estimates are that about the same percentage of 12th graders who used marijuana in the mid-1970s use it now -- and about 25 million adults spend around $11 billion annually to use marijuana, an economic figure that U.S. automakers can only drool at.

Reform advocates argue, based on numerous scientific studies, that marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol or nicotine.  Yet, if marijuana use were legalized and sold in the same way as alcohol and cigarettes, the resulting taxes would help fill the coffers of financially-challenged governments. And just as with alcohol and cigarettes, advertising of marijuana could be regulated, and marijuana could not be legally sold to minors.

Most reform advocates recognize the risks of legalizing marijuana. For many addicts, marijuana could prove to be a "gateway" drug that leads to use of stronger and more harmful drugs such as cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine. And undoubtedly, legalizing marijuana would lead some people to try it who otherwise would not.  The benefits of educational and treatment programs, paid for with "pot taxes," are supporters' common responses to these dangers.   

Legislation aimed at de-criminalizing marijuana has been introduced in the U.S. Congress and in some state legislatures.  Given the financial straits in which goverments find themselves and the broad dissatidfaction with the results of the "War on Drugs," some type of marijuana law reform seems like a reasonable prediction.

March 5, 2009

"Cell" Phones

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Purchasing a small amount of illegal drugs for personal use is generally a misdemeanor. However, under federal law, 21 U.S. Code Sec.843(b), using a "communication facility" to aid in the commission of a felony is itself a felony. So what happens if someone purchases a misdemeanor-size amount of cocaine using a felony-sized communication device (in this case, a cell phone)?

This question is now pending in the U.S. Supreme Court.  Defendant Salman Khade Abuelhawa used his cell phone to set up small cocaine buys; he was caught, then charged with and convicted of a felony. The Court of Appeals upheld the conviction (PDF) and Abuelhawa has appealed to the Supreme Court. 

Abuelhawa argues that his felony conviction is invalid.  After all, if he'd set up the cocaine buys in person, he'd be guilty only of a misdemeanor. So why should he be punished more severely for using a cell phone?  The Court of Appeals' answer? The harsher punishment is warranted because cell phones make it easier for criminals to violate the law without being detected.  If you want to read a transcript of the argument in the Supreme Court, visit http://www.supremecourtus.gov/oral_arguments/argument_transcripts/08-192.pdf.

While Abuelhawa's situation seems of little national significance, the Supreme Court's decision may help determine the future course of the so-called War on Drugs.  Harsh sentences for non-violent drug offenders have done a lot to swell prison populations but they have done little to curb consumption of illegal drugs.  If the Supreme Court upholds Abuelhawa's felony conviction, prosecutors will be encouraged to seek ever-harsher penalties for drug offenses.  A reduction of the sentence to a misdemeanor may signal that the Court thinks it's time for the government to try out some alternative methods of conducting the War on Drugs.