High court upholds life term without parole for first-time drug possession

June 28, 1991|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The SunWashington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court, ratifying a tough new weapon in the war on drugs, upheld yesterday the stiffest sentence imposed anywhere in the United States for a first-time crime of possessing illegal drugs: life in prison, with no chance of ever being released.

By a 5-4 vote, with even the justices in the majority split sharply, the court upheld a Michigan law -- matched nowhere else in the nation -- that imposes a mandatory life term without parole for anyone found guilty of possessing more than 650 grams of cocaine.

That amount of cocaine, equal to 1 pound 6 3/4 ounces, is estimated by federal authorities to have a value on the street of more than $25,000.

The only crime in Michigan that has a penalty equally severe is murder. Under federal drug law, a first-time conviction for possessing that amount of an illegal drug could get no more than 40 years in prison.

In another split decision yesterday, also controlled by the court's conservative justices, the court ruled 5-4 that states have more power to curb the public statements of lawyers than stories in the press.

The majority declared, in the first ruling ever on the scope of lawyers' constitutional right of free speech, that a state may punish an attorney for making out-of-court statements about a pending case if that lawyer knows the remarks have "a substantial likelihood of materially prejudicing" a trial or hearing.

By a different 5-4 vote, however, the justices struck down as too vague a Nevada lawyer-disciplinary rule used against Dominic P. Gentile, a prominent defense lawyer from Las Vegas. The rule was used against him, and he was given a private reprimand, after he held a press conference to denounce charges against his client.

That ruling had to be pieced together from separate majority opinions written by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justice Anthony M. Kennedy. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor cast the "swing" vote to make a majority for the new ruling and for the decision specifically in favor of Mr. Gentile.

The court also had to piece together its ruling in the drug sentencing decision from two opinions, one by Justice Kennedy, the other by Justice Antonin Scalia.

Justice Kennedy, whose opinion appeared to be the controlling one in the Michigan case, wrote:

"The Michigan Legislature could with reason conclude that the threat posed to the individual and society by possession of this large an amount of cocaine -- in terms of violence, crime, and social displacement -- is momentous enough to warrant the deterrence and retribution of a life sentence without parole."

Justice Scalia remarked in the other key opinion: "The members of the Michigan Legislature, and not we, know the situation on he streets of Detroit.

Parts of Justice Scalia's opinion, supported only by Chief Justice Rehnquist, argued that the Constitution does not even require that a sentence fit the crime.

The ban on "cruel and unusual punishment," those two justices contended, should be read only to outlaw specific methods of punishment that are "cruel" in themselves and are not "regularly or customarily employed" -- such as beheading and disemboweling.

But Justice Kennedy, in the controlling opinion, said that the Constitution does require that a punishment not be "disproportional" to the crime.

The case

Ronald Allen Harmelin, 45, was stopped by police in Oak Park, Mich., in the early morning hours of May 12, 1986, after he made an illegal turn at a red light. An officer did a "pat-down"

and felt something in Harmelin's pockets.

A cigarette case containing marijuana cigarettes was found, so officers made a complete search of Harmelin, finding 10 packets of white power, three little vials of white powder, and assorted pills. In the car, they found $2,900 in cash and two bags of cocaine, containing a total of 672.5 grams.

Because Michigan law provides a mandatory life prison term without parole for possessing more than 650 grams of cocaine, Harmelin will spend the rest of his life in prison. He is now in a cell in Adrian, Mich.

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