Justices take up city drug case

Life terms could be cut if high court makes ruling from 2000 retroactive

5 were sentenced in 1998

April 16, 2002|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - The U.S. Supreme Court considered yesterday whether life terms handed down to five players in a major East Baltimore drug ring in 1998 should be sharply reduced based on a landmark sentencing decision the high court issued two years later.

The court's ruling in 2000 that only juries, not judges, could find defendants eligible for a sentence longer than what is spelled out in the law touched off a sweeping overhaul in criminal sentencing proceedings. The question before the justices is whether those changes should be retroactive.

During arguments yesterday in the Baltimore drug case, the court appeared to be skeptical of that idea. Several justices questioned whether Stanley "Boonie" Hall Jr. and his co-defendants should get a break now on an issue that was never raised during their original trial or sentencing proceedings.

The justices also appeared to be hesitant to issue a ruling that would throw out lengthy sentences considered appropriate to the crime and open the door for hundreds of similar challenges across the country.

"Your clients were convicted, if you believe the government's case, of being drug kingpins, and you're saying all we're asking is that they be given the same sentence as a mule," or drug courier, Justice Antonin Scalia said yesterday to defense attorney Timothy J. Sullivan of College Park. "I don't consider that an insignificant difference."

Law enforcement officials in Baltimore had called the steep sentences in Hall's case a clear win against a vast, well-organized drug organization. Authorities said Hall, working with his brothers, parents and grandfather, had built a million-dollar crack cocaine ring along North Duncan Street.

A federal jury in Baltimore convicted Hall and eight others of conspiring to distribute a "detectable amount" of cocaine, a crime punishable by up to 20 years in prison. At sentencing, U.S. District Judge Catherine C. Blake sentenced Hall, then 26, and four of his co-defendants to life after finding that the men were eligible for steeper penalties because they had trafficked in more than 50 grams of cocaine base, or crack.

A federal appeals panel ruled 2-1 last year that Blake had effectively sentenced the men "for a crime with which they were never charged." The judges of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., said the sentences should be cut to 20 years.

In a sharp dissent, Chief Circuit Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III said that the "true injustice comes from this court reducing [the defendants'] sentences and ignoring the effects that their vast drug distribution ring had upon the citizens of Baltimore."

"Changing the rules of the game after it has already been fairly played does a profound disservice to the individuals whose lives have been affected by the drug trade," he said.

The court is expected to rule on Hall's case this summer.

The Baltimore case is one of three criminal cases the court agreed to hear this term to examine sentencing issues left unresolved by its 2000 ruling in Apprendi v. New Jersey. In that case, Charles C. Apprendi of Vineland, N.J., was convicted of firing several shots into the home of a black family in his neighborhood and was sentenced under New Jersey's hate crime law to a term exceeding the maximum allowed for the underlying weapons charge.

The Supreme Court struck down his sentence, saying any factors that would increase a defendant's sentence must be found to exist by a jury.

The decision caused considerable upheaval among prosecutors and judges across the country, who for years had relied on a system in which juries voted on guilt but judges ruled on factual details - such as drug quantity - that could influence a defendant's sentence.

Deputy Solicitor General Michael R. Dreeben, who argued the government's case yesterday, said federal prosecutors automatically include drug quantity in indictments and include proof of the amounts at trial. Dreeben said the government should not be penalized now for not doing so before the 2000 Apprendi ruling.

Dreeben said the Hall case defendants were told from the outset that they could face up to life in prison. He called the 4th Circuit ruling a "substantial windfall" for the men.

"In this case, there is not a plausible claim that the defendants did not know they would face a possible sentence of life in prison if a judge found the [drug] conspiracy involved at least 50 grams of cocaine base," Dreeben said.

According to court records, police recovered at least 380 grams of crack cocaine in the Hall case.

Sullivan said that even if the defendants were not sympathetic, they were entitled to a trial by jury and due process.

"That's the rule of law: You roll the dice, and sometimes the defendants win, and more often the government wins," Sullivan said. "Perhaps the results in this case are not palatable to some people."

Sullivan was interrupted at that point by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who said she thought the government had a strong point in the Hall case. O'Connor and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said that even if the government erred by not including drug quantity in the original indictment, the mistake was not substantial enough to warrant reversal.

The question, Ginsburg told Sullivan, "is whether this is something that's fundamentally unfair or that will affect the reputation of the court, and it seems to me what you just told us goes against that finding."

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