55-year term for pot, gun upheld
An appeals court on Monday upheld the 55-year mandatory sentence of a Utah man who carried a firearm while dealing pot, a penalty that had been decried as unconstitutional by dozens of former judges and prosecutors and as unjust by the sentencing judge himself.
The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver rejected the argument that the sentence imposed on record producer Weldon Angelos was cruel and unusual punishment that was disproportionate to his crime.
In a 30-page opinion, a panel of judges pointed out that the U.S. Supreme Court has reviewed a number of state and federal sentences but struck down only two of them in the past century, one in 1910 and the other in 1983, as being in violation of the Eighth Amendment. Sentences the high court has upheld include a life term for a Texas recidivist who obtained about $220 of merchandise by false pretenses, 40 years behind bars for a Virginia man for possession and distribution of 9 ounces of marijuana and 25 years to life for theft by a California convict of three golf clubs worth $1,200, according to the ruling.
Considered together, these cases support the Supreme Court's recent statement that a constitutional violation occurs only in an "extraordinary case," the 10th Circuit said.
"Applying these principles to the case at hand, we conclude that this is not an 'extraordinary' case in which the sentences at issue are 'grossly disproportionate' to the crimes for which they were imposed," Judge Mary Beck Briscoe wrote. She was joined in the opinion by Senior Judge Stephen Anderson and Judge Terrence O'Brien.
Two Salt Lake City attorneys who represent Angelos, Jerome Mooney and Erik Luna, said they are disappointed with the ruling. Mooney said they would review the decision for grounds to ask the 10th Circuit to reconsider and that the issue could end up before the Supreme Court.
Luna, a law professor at the University of Utah, also said they "respectfully disagree" with the decision and called Angelos' punishment draconian. "We're currently considering a variety of options," he said. "We do not believe the case is over yet."
Melodie Rydalch, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office, said prosecutors are pleased with the ruling.
"The court agreed with our evidence at trial that clearly established Angelos as a known gang member who had long used and sold drugs and that he possessed and used a number of firearms, some stolen, to facilitate his drug activities," Rydalch said.
She added that the slogan of "hard time for gun crime" used by the office is appropriate in this case.
Angelos, now 26, the founder of Extravagant Records, was accused of selling marijuana to a police informant three times in May and June 2002, each time charging $350 for 8 ounces. At one sale, he had a gun strapped to his ankle, according to court records. At the other drug buys, there were firearms in the vicinity.
A federal grand jury originally indicted Angelos in November 2002 on one gun possession count, three counts of marijuana distribution and two lesser charges. After Angelos rejected a plea bargain that would have sent him to prison for 16 years, authorities obtained a new indictment with 20 charges.
When Angelos asked to reopen negotiations, prosecutors said it was too late. In December 2001, a jury convicted him of 16 counts.
U.S. District Judge Paul Cassell reluctantly sentenced Angelos to a mandatory 55 years in prison, five years for the first gun-possession conviction and 25 years each for the next two, to be served one after the other. For 13 drug and money laundering counts, the judge imposed one additional day behind bars. Cassell said the prison term was "unjust and cruel and even irrational."
So did defense attorneys, who appealed and gained the support of many in the legal field, who said the sentence was excessive. However, the U.S. Attorney's Office stuck to its contention that Angelos is the kind of offender Congress had in mind when it enacted tough penalties for criminals who carry a firearm while committing a felony.
Monday's decision also rejected challenges to the legality of the search of Angelos' Salt Lake City apartment and the claim that he "brandished" a gun during drug sales or even had one with him during the transactions.
Tribune correspondent Robert Boczkiewicz contributed to this story.