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November 15, 2005 - Rocky Mountain News (CO)

Court To Tackle Minimum Federal Sentences

By Karen Abbott

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Three judges of the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments Tuesday over a 55-year prison sentence imposed on a Salt Lake City man, a first offender, for selling small amounts of marijuana and having guns.

The case of 26-year-old Weldon H. Angelos has drawn nationwide attention and a friend-of-the-court brief filed by more than 100 judges, prosecutors and others -- including several former U.S. attorneys general -- contending that the mandatory minimum sentences required by Congress for certain crimes can be too harsh in some individual circumstances, and that judges should be able to temper them.

"It's important that the court system be a final check," said Jerome Mooney of Salt Lake City, one of Angelos' lawyers. "The court has to have the ability to say, 'Okay, this one went too far.'"

Utah federal prosecutor Robert Lund said only Congress has the power to decide whether mandatory minimum sentences and that judges must impose them without taking individual circumstances into account.

"You're arguing that we are bound by the law ... without any reference to common sense, fairness or proportionality. We do not have the authority to overturn this sentence?" inquired 10th Circuit Judge Stephen Anderson of Utah.

"Yes," replied Lund.

Utah U.S. District Judge Paul Cassell, who reluctantly sentenced Angelos as the law required, called the sentence unfair, asked the president to intercede and urged Congress to change the law.

Angelos' lawyers, Jerome Mooney and Erik Luna, both of Salt Lake City, argued Tuesday that the sentence violates the U.S. Constitution's Eighth Amendment, prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment, and that Angelos would not have been sentenced to more than a handful of years in prison except for the mandatory minimum required by the combnation of guns and drugs in his case.

A jury convicted Angelos in 2003 of drug crimes, money laundering and gun offenses. It was the combination of drugs and guns that lengthened his sentence. Congress requires longer prison terms for people who use guns in the drug trade.

But Angelos' lawyers also argued that he was wrongly convicted based on an improper search. They said candidly after Tuesday's arguments that they hoped to win on that ground without having to wage a difficult Eighth Amendment fight to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Among other problems with the searches of Angelos' home, office and vehicle, his lawyers said, was that officers went beyond what their warrant allowed and scooped up duffel bags bearing marijuana scraps.

Later, the officers said they could smell marijuana everywhere in Angelos' property and that they were as entitled to seize the bags based on what they smelled as officers commonly are based on what they see "in plain sight."

Luna said the officers didn't mention smelling marijuana until months later, during arguments over whether the bags could be used as evidence against Angelos.

"In my opinion," he said Tuesday, "this case smells."

Angelos' lawyers also argued that photographs wrongly seized by officers portrayed Angelos unfairly to jurors, showing him holding guns and money.

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