In 1989 a Florida man was sentenced to 90 years in prison after being found guilty of trafficking in cannabis, racketeering and conspiracy. While the man had a prior marijuana related drug trafficking offense from a few years prior, the Florida sentencing guidelines called for him to serve between 12-17 years for his crime. There was no violence alleged and there was no evidence that the defendant ever used or was found with a firearm or other weapon. Nonetheless, the Polk County judge made the extraordinarily harsh and irrational decision to sentence the man to three consecutive 30-year sentences. While RICO and conspiracy are typically reserved for federal criminal cases, this particular case was prosecuted in state court. Much like the federal system, Florida abolished parole in the early 1980’s the 40-year old defendant was basically sentenced to life in prison for a non-violent marijuana charge. The presiding judge apparently justified his decision to drastically depart upward of the sentencing guidelines by stating that the defendant was the ringleader of the conspiracy, and that he had allegedly bragged about his profitability in the marijuana smuggling business. Fortunately, for the defendant, his family and for the sake of reason and compassion, the man was released this week at age 71. It is widely believed that he had been serving the longest term of incarceration for any non-violent offense in the country.
While there is reason to celebrate the man’s release after serving three decades behind bars, the news is a solemn reminder of how unjust our criminal law policies are when it comes to drug offenses. This is especially true for marijuana cases in Florida, where it is still a felony punishable by up to 5 years in prison to possess more than 20 grams of pot. Possession of any amount of marijuana, including a trace amount or a burnt joint, is punishable by a potential jail sentence and the possibility of a permanent criminal conviction. Each year more states choose to legalize marijuana for recreational use, and the House of U.S. Representatives passed a bill to decriminalize marijuana under federal law by removing it from the controlled substances list. While the measure is likely to die in the Senate, the bill even received support from two Republican representatives from Florida. Marijuana legalization is coming without a doubt, and it is still a shame that prosecutors and judges choose to pursue jail sentences for defendants whose pot cases have no violent or weapon allegations. We recently posted about the Maryland legislature potentially debating the legalization of marijuana for recreational use in 2021, and Florida may go down the same path in a couple of years. Once marijuana is decriminalized the states will likely develop a user-friendly procedure to expunge past cases, as the feds cannot be counted on to do the same.
Benjamin Herbst is a criminal lawyer who continues to fight for all defendants facing drug charges in the state and federal courts in Maryland and Florida. He has extensive experience defending clients charged with manufacturing marijuana, drug trafficking, possession with intent to distribute and all other criminal offenses. Benjamin also specializes in weapons and firearms cases, and has won numerous jury trials and motions to suppress evidence. Call Benjamin anytime at 410-207-2598 or at 954-543-0305 in Florida for a free consultation about the defenses that may be available in your case.