Federal Judge Who Sentenced Utah Man to 55 Years in Prison for Dealing Marijuana Calls the Punishment “Irrational”

Editor’s note: The following is a lightly edited interview with Paul Cassell, a former federal judge in Utah who now teaches law at the University of Utah. This interview discusses one of his rulings, imposing a 55-year prison sentence on a low-level drug dealer. Cassell’s ruling notes that mandatory minimum sentencing laws required him to impose the sentence—one which he stated, in his ruling, to be “unjust, cruel, and even irrational.”

The comments in this interview do not necessarily reflect the views of Libertas Institute.

Libertas Institute: One of the cases you adjudicated that has received the most attention is that of Weldon Angelos. Can you summarize who he is, and what the case was about?

Paul Cassell: The details are set out in the court opinion, so obviously this is just a summary not intended to be an exhaustive account. In essence, Weldon Angelos was involved with three marijuana deals [in 2002], and for each of those deals he brought along a firearm with him. Under federal law, if you have a firearm that is in furtherance of a drug deal—and simply bringing a firearm would be in a furtherance of a drug deal—then the first offense is a five year mandatory minimum, the second offense is 25 years, and the third offense is another 25 years.

So in the course of, as I recall, a week or 10 days, Angelos racked up about 55 years of mandatory federal prison time.

LI: Is Angelos’s case, in your judicial experience, an anomaly—or did you see other cases like it?

PC: I was on the bench for about 5.5 years in Utah, and that was certainly the most extreme mandatory minimum sentence I saw while I was there. I can’t point to other cases I had that were like that, but I know there a number of other cases around the country. These are called 924(c) counts. There are other people who have been subjected to those kinds of penalties.

LI: Did you regret having to sentence Angelos the way that you did? What were your thoughts, as a judge, having to hand down that type of sentence in that case?

PC: Again, I would refer interested readers to the opinion that I wrote, which is lengthy and went over all the aspects of the case that I thought were relevant. There were a couple of things. One is that I thought the sentencing was irrational. I went through and tried to look at what people would get for other offenses—for example, in the federal system you can determine quite precisely what somebody gets for second degree murder, rape, robbery, or things like that.

It was amazing—Weldon Angelos got 55 years but a second degree murderer would get 20 years, give or take, a child rapist might have gotten 12 years, an adult rapist 7 years, something like that. So he got far more time for an offense that did not involve direct physical violence than even a second degree murderer would have gotten in the federal system. I don’t see how anyone can defend that as rational.

As somebody who was involved at the time in the federal criminal justice system, I thought it very important that the public have confidence that we were handing out rational sentences that were fair and appropriate and fit the crime. That was very troubling to me, so I tried to make that point.

Another point I tried to make was that when you have victims of violent crimes—people who have been shot or abused, or things like that—they shouldn’t have to pick up the paper and say “well, my client only got X years, and this fella is getting 55 years, and he didn’t hurt anyone.” I think that sort of minimizes the trauma that victims experience from these crimes. So, for all those reasons, it was a sentence that I think should never have been imposed

The only reason I imposed it was that federal law required me to do so.

LI: In your opinion, is there any good reason to have mandatory minimum sentences? Is this just a fringe case in which they were irrational, or are there reasons to require a judge in certain cases and crimes to hand down a mandatory minimum?

PC: I’ve written an article called “Mandatory Minimalism” that tried to talk a little bit about that issue. I try to be in the middle on a lot of these issues, and this is one of them. I think there are upsides and downsides. The downsides are that they can be draconian and require a judge to impose a sentence that doesn’t fit the circumstances of the case.

On the other hand, I do think there are some limited areas where mandatory minimums can be valuable—for example, encouraging people involved in low-level drug dealing to cooperate to avoid a tough sentence. But I think the area where mandatory minimums are most useful is in certain situations where we as a society want to send a message to potential criminals. The classic example for me is “use a gun, go to prison”—the idea being that if anyone uses a gun in a crime, they’re going to be looking at mandatory prison time.

I do think there are some specific areas where you can make a case for mandatory minimums; the trick is, as with many things, to try to not go to one extreme or the other.

LI: What is your opinion of the so-called “war on drugs”?

PC: I think we could do a better job in discriminating between different kinds of drugs. The 924(c) counts I was involved with in the Weldon Angelos case, for example, involved dealing marijuana. There are a variety of illegal drugs; marijuana is obviously at the lower end of the spectrum in terms of seriousness.

But there are more serious drugs, and for me methamphetamine would be a prime example. I like to say that methamphetamine is everything your mother told you about illegal drugs—you’ll get addicted, it’ll destroy your health, and essentially take over your personality. I saw a number of offenders who came through my court who became completely different people when they were addicted to meth. I think we need to differentiate between people who are distributing that kind of drug and those who are distributing, for example, marijuana. There needs to be more nuance in the way we approach the enforcement and prosecution sides of that.

LI: Do you think there is any reason to have mandatory minimums specifically in sentences pertaining to the possession, use, or distribution of controlled substances?

PC: I think you can certainly make a case for it, particularly in situations where prosecutors are trying to get cooperation from witnesses.

If somebody can be handled through a treatment option rather than a punishment option, then that should be our first resort when we’re talking about drug possession crimes.  But remember, if we want to have successful treatment, there has to be some teeth in the system; nobody is voluntarily going to go if the judge says “pretty please go ahead and do that,” that’s not going to be enough. There has to be some kind of sanction to make the programs work.

LI: Senator Mike Lee is sponsoring legislation that would, in his words, “modernize federal drug sentencing policies by giving federal judges more discretion in sentencing those convicted of non-violent drug offenses.” What are your thoughts on this proposal specifically, or congressional reform more broadly?

PC: I’ve argued against, for example, mandatory minimums for 924(c) cases. I think that those need to be reformed. On the other hand, this is an area where there are competing concerns. You could say to a judge “look, give this fella whatever you want, anywhere from 0 to 50 years in prison.” I think we would all agree that that’s a huge amount of discretion—discretion that could be misused, applied on racial bases, or other improper grounds. That’s one of the things that the sentencing guidelines try to address, which were passed to respond to the problem of unconstrained judicial discretion.

LI: If your hands had not been tied in Angelos’s case with mandatory minimums, do you have any idea of what type of sentence he may have faced were you given the discretion to determine a punishment that fit the circumstances of his case?

PC: I polled the jurors and sent them some information after the trial about Weldon Angelos’s prior record and other circumstances that a judge would look at during sentencing. A number of them wrote back and gave me what they thought would be a fair sentence. As I recall, it was something like 18 years that they came up with. It seemed to me that something in that range might be right.

One of the things you always have to consider in a case like that is that Weldon Angelos had been offered a plea arrangement and he had turned it down. The U.S. Attorney’s office was very concerned that someone not be able to turn down a plea arrangement and go to trial, and still end up with a better sentence than if they had pled guilty. That would undercut the whole plea bargaining system that’s so critical to the operation of our courts in a modern day world.

LI: For readers who aren’t familiar with the judicial system, can you share what options Angelos has to reduce his stay in prison, if any?

PC: He has filed a couple of different appeals and habeas corpus petitions. None of those have been successful. At the end of the day, the President of the United States has the final say on how long Weldon Angelos is going to serve in prison. He has the power to pardon someone, of course, or commute a sentence. I believe Angelos has a commutation petition in front of the Justice Department right now asking for his sentence to be reduced. That’s where the final word would come.

LI: What message would you deliver to Utah legislators or our federal delegation about these issues?

PC: This is a complicated subject that shouldn’t be resolved with bumper sticker slogans or quick fixes. There are a lot of integrated parts that have to fit together carefully, so I would hope that Congress would look at all the issues carefully.