Federal Sentencing Commission Votes for Retroactive Reduction of Drug Trafficking Prison Terms

In a move expected to allow more than 46,000 federal drug offenders to seek reduced sentences, the U.S. Sentencing Commission voted unanimously to apply prison term reductions retroactively.

The decision came in July, just three months after the commission amended guidelines to slash base level sentences for a myriad of drugs. That determination means that offenders convicted of federal drug crimes from here forward are facing lower sentences. The most recent decision means those who have already been convicted – many sentenced to harsh terms of life in prison – will also benefit.

Our Birmingham drug crime defense attorneys want to make prisoners and their loved ones aware of this change, which takes effect November 2015, and to encourage anyone who may be applicable to seek legal counsel. This ruling will present tens of thousands of non-violent offenders with the opportunity for a second chance at life.

They include people like Scott Walker, a man who has served nearly 18 years of a life sentence after being imprisoned at age 25 for dealing drugs. After exhausting his appeals, he began to lose hope that he would ever be free.

His story, chronicled recently by the Associated Press, mirrors so many of those currently locked up. He knows mistakes were made in his youth. He feels ashamed of them, he said. He finds it hard to relate to the youth he once was, and says he accepts he needed to pay a price for his actions. He peddled drugs to support a meth habit. After he was caught, he says he made of series of bad choices, including refusing his attorney's advice to cooperate with authorities in exchange for a plea deal.

Certainly, he had to pay a price. But life in prison without the possibility of parole? Even the trial judge, who was bound by mandatory sentencing guidelines, agrees it was excessive. He even sent a letter to the President requesting Walker's sentence be commuted to 20 years.

Walker, like so many others, was a victim of the so-called “war on drugs,” policies enacted by lawmakers responding to concerns about rising street violence, crime rates and drug abuse. The initial goal of the “get tough” laws was to target high-level drug dealers. However, many now agree the laws were overly-broad. In some cases, those caught with just five grams of crack-cocaine could serve anywhere from 5 to 40 years in prison.

Looking back, even some of those involved in the “war on drugs” movement say the punishments don't fit the crimes.

Congress still has a November 2014 deadline to reject the new guidelines, though many suspect such a move is unlikely, given the excessive overcrowding among the U.S. prison population. As it now stands, the Federal Bureau of Prison estimates the number of prisoners exceeds capacity by nearly 33 percent.

While reduction of sentences would vary depending on the circumstances of each case, on average prisoners would have their prison sentence reduced by 25 months (2 years), which works out to about 19 percent.

The effect on overcrowding, the bureau estimates, would be marked. Over time, it's going to mean a reduction of roughly 80,000 bed years, which the bureau considers the equivalent of one inmate occupying a prison bed for a full 12 months.

Although the new guidelines won't technically go into effect until November 2015, inmates can begin the petition process now, with the help of an experienced lawyer. The delay was part of a strategic plan by the commission to offer judges ample time to consider eligibility of those requesting a reduced sentence.

For more information about how you or a loved one can apply for drug sentence reduction, contact Birmingham Drug Crime Defense Attorney Steven Eversole at (866) 831-5292.

U.S. v. Gutierrez – Drug-Sniffing Dog at Home Amounts to Search, But Exceptions Apply

Last spring, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down an important ruling with regard to the way police are allowed to conduct searches with “drug-sniffing dogs” outside suspects' homes.

In Florida v. Jardines, the court held that the use of a dog sniff at the front door of a drug suspect constitutes a “search” for purposes of the Fourth Amendment. That means in most cases, police need a warrant.

However, our Birmingham drug defense lawyers recognize that there may be exceptions prosecutors could still argue, as illustrated in the recent case of U.S. v. Gutierrez, considered by the U.S. Court of Appeals. This is why it's so important to have an experienced criminal defense lawyer handling your case. An attorney with a strong understanding of the historical context of drug statutes and recent case law developments is critical to a successful challenge of such evidence.

In the Gutierrez case, law enforcement in Illinois received a tip from a confidential informant that a suspect was engaged in drug trafficking. Officers went to the home with a certified narcotics canine – but no warrant. They knocked on the door, saw movement inside, but received no answer. The dog alerted positive for drugs in the residence, and the officers remained knocking for 15 minutes. The officers then entered the home with force and “secured” the home, but did not conduct a formal search until they obtained a search warrant, relying on the dog's positive alert. The search turned up 11 pounds of methamphetamine inside the residence.

This occurred in November 2012. The Jardines case was decided in March 2013. Given the circumstances, there is no doubt the sniff used in the Gutierrez case is no longer permissible, absent a warrant. Further, a warrant proffered solely on the basis of a dog sniff is invalid.

Gutierrez filed a motion to suppress the drug-sniff evidence (which would basically end the case against him) two months after the Jardines ruling was issued.

However, because of the 2011 decision in Davis v. U.S., such evidence won't be suppressed if prosecutors can show at the time of the officers' conduct, there was binding appellate precedent authorizing their actions.

The district court conceded the search violated the Fourth Amendment under Jardines, but applied the “good faith” exception to the exclusionary rule. That is, it found the officers reasonably and in good faith believed at the time of the search their conduct was lawful. That includes the use of a warrant later deemed invalid.

Further, the court found there was no Fourth Amendment violation in this case because previous case law in that circuit held that officers who enter and “seize” a home for the purpose of preserving the status quo while waiting for a search warrant aren't in the wrong, so long as there was probable cause at the time they entered, and the seizures wasn't “unreasonably” long.

Because there was precedent in the Seventh Circuit, which allowed officers to conduct searches based solely on a positive indicator from a drug dog, the appellate court affirmed the order denying a motion to suppress.

That means this defendant's 10-year prison term will stand, even though the search was later deemed illegal.

However, the circumstances under which prosecutors could apply this law would only be relevant for searches that occurred before the Jardines case was decided. For searches that occurred after March 2013 – no matter where the circuit – the U.S. Supreme Court's decision is considered the prevailing law.

For more information about how you or a loved one can apply for drug sentence reduction, contact Birmingham Drug Crime Defense Attorney Steven Eversole at (866) 831-5292.