Mandatory minimum sentences transform courts into flagship legislative chambers


Last month, Rogel Lazaro Aguilera-Mederos, a 23-year-old truck driver, was sentenced to 110 years in prison for unintentionally causing a shipwreck that left four people dead and injured others. Aguilera-Mederos, who did not use a ramp after his brakes failed as he accelerated on I-70 in Colorado, was found guilty of homicide and less serious charges of first degree assault and attempted first degree assault for the four Coloradans who died.

Aguilera-Mederos, in tears and apologizing, who was not drunk at the time of the accident, told the court: “It hurts. Too often I ask God why them and not me? Why did I survive this accident? “

Mr Aguilera’s case drew more than five million signatures on a petition, calling on Governor Jared Polis to grant leniency or commute his sentence. Last week, the governor of Colorado responded to the public outcry, reasonably reducing Mr. Aguilera’s sentence to 10 years.

Had Mr. Aguilera been found guilty only of homicide and driving charges, he would potentially have only been sentenced to a recommended sentence of two to six years. But because the assault and attempted assault in the first degree are considered “crimes of violence” and stem from the same incident as the charge of manslaughter, the state imposed a “mandatory minimum sentence”. “. In the case of Aguilera-Mederos, the law required that his sentences be consecutive and not concurrent.

As a former prosecutor, I saw the unintended consequences of mandatory minimum sentences and how they create a coercive justice system. Prosecutors who believe there are extenuating circumstances in their case must use one of three options to protect defendants from an unfair mandatory sentence: they can refuse to file, demote a charge, or offer the defendant a plea bargain. for a lesser charge without a mandatory minimum sentence. The latter option is the most common and often requires an accused who wants to assert his innocence at trial to plead guilty to a less serious charge just to avoid a harsh mandatory sentence.

The latter option may seem inconsequential since it appears that the defendant would benefit from being charged with a less serious crime. But the effect of this generalized solution violates the presumption of innocence of the Constitution implicit in the Fifth, Sixth and 14th Amendments because it forces Americans who believe themselves to be innocent to waive their right to a trial since they know if they are convicted, even their judge can do so. nothing to protect them from a draconian and mandatory sentence.

However, the state recently amended its mandatory minimum law, and it now offers a safe harbor provision for judicial “review”. This allows the sentencing judge to reconsider the original sentence once the defendant has started serving his sentence, provided the case is “exceptional” and “involves[s] unusual and extenuating circumstances.

Under this provision, even if Mr. Polis had not commuted Aguilera-Mederos’ sentence, the sentencing judge could have reconsidered his sentence. Although this type of provision is unusual, some jurisdictions are considering a similar reform. In California, a newly formed state commission is considering eliminating mandatory sentences for non-violent crimes and allowing judges to reconsider all sentences after a person has spent 15 years in prison.

“The federal system allowed judges to reconsider a sentence for a period of time after passing it, but that has since been abolished,” lawyer Alan Dershowitz told me in a telephone interview. “Judges can only reconsider a sentence now if the government asks for it. The vast majority of criminal cases are not covered by these types of “review provisions”, so there is a need for a change. ”

Mr. Dershowitz’s assessment of a need for change could not be more specific, as mandatory minimum sentences have done more than undermine the constitutional rights of defendants in the face of loss of their liberty. They have also undermined the independence of the judiciary, subjecting judges who hear the unique facts of cases to the will of lawmakers who do not, turning courtrooms into mere star chambers issuing rubber convictions. for elected officials reacting to the general outcry.

Our editor’s intention to keep the legislature out of the judiciary is inherent in Article I, Section, Paragraph 3 of the Constitution, which prohibits Congress from passing “bills” that punish people for crimes. and “ex post facto laws” that retroactively enforce punishment.

In 1965, the Supreme Court ruled in US v. Brown that “the Bill of Attainder clause was not intended as a narrow, technical (and soon to be outdated) prohibition, but rather as an implementation of the separation of powers, a general rule safeguard against the legislative exercise of the judicial function or more simply – judgment by the legislator.

In his 2002 book, “The Supreme Court,” former Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist affirmed this position, writing that “he [is] the traditional role of a court, adjudicating an individual case, to impose a sanction.

While elected lawmakers rightly hold the constitutional power to make laws, that power, like any power in our republic, is limited and should not interfere with appropriate judicial discretion to preserve the rights of the accused.

• Jeffrey Scott Shapiro was Assistant Attorney General for the District of Columbia from 2007 to 2009. He is a practicing lawyer and associate commentator for the Washington Times.

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