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As a former Manhattan Prosecutor I have presented hundreds of cases to grand juries in New York. As a partner at a prominent criminal defense firm I have sat with clients inside the grand jury as they were questioned by prosecutors. With recent news reports about the a New York County Grand Jury considering charges against New York Giants stars Plaxico Burress and Antonio Pierce, it is important to understand exactly what a grand jury is and how it operates.

No person may be tried on a felony charge in New York unless a grand jury has considered evidence and voted an indictment or unless the person has waived indictment. The grand jury itself is made up of between 16 and 23 people. They are charged with the duty of hearing and examining evidence involving offenses or misconduct whether or not the misconduct is criminal. In order for a grand jury to vote an indictment 12 of the grand jurors must vote to indict.

The burden to vote for an indictment is low. A grand juror need only find that there is reasonable cause to believe that a person committed an offense. In laymans terms that means that a grand jury need only find sufficient evidence to accuse a person of having committed a felony. This is a very different standard than the proof “beyond a reasonable doubt” needed to convict someone of a crime.

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Tilem & Campbell just obtained a summary of the new Legislation repealing the Rockefeller Drug laws. If you or a loved one is currently serving a term in prison for a New York Narcotics case or is currently charged with any New York Drug case. Contact one of the experienced criminal attorneys at www.888anycrime.com

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New York criminal defense lawyers, especially those that handle New York State drug cases, are monitoring an agreement just announced between the New York Senate, Assembly and Governor to repeal the Rockefeller Drug Laws. Details are not fully available but the legislation is expected to substantially reduce and in some cases eliminate mandatory minimums for New York Drug cases, give judges options of treatment instead of sentences of incarceration and give judges the ability to dismiss all charges and seal the arrest records of offenders who complete drug treatment.

While the bill, once passed is likely to have far reaching effects on New York drug cases, the legislation will not have any effect on the draconian, federal mandatory minimums that Tilem & Campbell is currently challenging in Federal Court. The bill will likely provide some relief to the many people serving lengthy state sentences under the old law.

The laws have not been passed yet but with agreement by all the major players, the bills should be passed quickly and will likely take effect soon. Tilem & Campbell will continue to monitor this important legislation and pass on updates as the become available. If you have any questions contact us at 888-ANY-CRIME or visit us on the web at 888anycrime.com

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Currently, Tilem & Campbell has one appeal pending before the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit challenging the constitutionality of the previously discussed 100:1 powder cocaine v. crack cocaine sentencing discrepancy. Tilem & Campbell has another Federal Narcotics case for which it is preparing the appeal now. Among other arguments, we have presented an Equal Protection argument centered on the unequal sentences imposed on crack offenders as compared to powder cocaine offenders.

Every day that a crack offender spends in prison beyond that which a powder cocaine offender would spend for the same quantity of drug is an unconstitutional deprivation of liberty; a fundamental right. Such sentencing discrepancies cannot survive a rational basis analysis let alone a strict scrutiny analysis.

The above-discussed “100-to-1 ratio yields sentences for crack offenses three to six times longer than those for powder offenses involving equal amounts of drugs.” Kimbrough v. U.S. 128 S.Ct. 558 (2007). As a result of this disparity, “a major supplier of powder cocaine may receive a shorter sentence than a low-level dealer who buys powder from the supplier but then converts it to crack.” Id.

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New York criminal defense firm Tilem & Campbell is pleased to report that after years of fierce opposition to New York’s draconian “Rockefeller” drug laws, and after some amendments, passed in 2004, did away with some of the harshest sentences, it now appears that much of the remnants of the Rockefeller Drug laws are going to be repealed. Last week by a more that 2-1 margin, the New York State Assembly passed a bill which would repeal additional provisions of the Rockefeller Drug Laws and which would give Judge’s greater discretion in sentencing drug-offenders to non-jail, treatment programs. These provisions can have a substantial effect on New York Drug cases.

Governor Patterson has already signaled his approval of amending the Rockefeller Drug Laws and with democrats in control of the New York State Senate, it seems that some significant change in New York State Drug laws is all but certain.

As an experienced criminal defense lawyer I have handled numerous drug cases. In addition, as a former prosecutor I have handled hundreds if not thousands of drug cases. In my vast experience, rarely do I see major traffickers getting arrested and often see low level dealers or users get sentenced to many years in prison. What I find surprising is that often then prosecutor, and judge agree that the sentence is to severe but under the law, often the judges and prosecutors are powerless to reduce the sentence.

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As experienced New York and Federal criminal defense lawyers, we keep track of changes and proposed changes in the law that may effect our clients. When appropriate, and as part of the effort of our effort, though this blog to educate the public, our clients and our friends, we post proposed changes in the law here, in our blog.

Congress is taking notice to the injustice associated with the previously discussed 100:1 ratio crack cocaine vs powder cocaine sentencing disparity. At least 6 Bills in 2007 and 1 in 2008 were proposed by both Democrats and Republicans that would in some way reduce or eliminate the 100:1 cocaine/cocaine base ratio. These proposed Bills include:

H.R. 5035, the Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing Act of 2008: Eliminates mandatory minimums for cocaine offenses. On January 17, Rep. Robert “Bobby” C. Scott (D-Va.), who is Chairman of the House Committed on the Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security and also serves on the House Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, introduced H.R. 5035, The Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing Act of 2008. The bill would, among other things, eliminate the distinction between powder cocaine and cocaine base (crack) and eliminate all mandatory cocaine sentences. This bill is the first bill introduced in the House in the 110th Congress that would eliminate mandatory minimums for crack and powder cocaine sentences.

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As I have been discussing in previous blogs, the rationale behind the 100:1 powder cocaine to crack cocaine sentencing disparity has been proven to be unfounded and false. Yet another argument the New York criminal defense firm Tilem & Campbell is raising in one of our appellate challenges to the constitutionality of the sentencing disparity between crack cocaine and powder cocaine is that crack cocaine and powder cocaine are the same drug.

As observed by the United States Supreme Court, crack and powder cocaine are two forms of the same drug and they share the same active ingredient – cocaine hydrochloride. Kimbrough v. U.S. 128 S.Ct. 558, 566 (2007). Furthermore, numerous studies have shown that the physiological and psychotropic effects of crack and powder cocaine are the same, and the drugs are now widely acknowledged as pharmacologically identical.

For example, a 1996 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found analogous effects on the body for both crack and powder cocaine.

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As I have previously discussed, Congress justified Draconian mandatory minimum sentences for federal crack cocaine offenses upon their mistaken belief that, among other things, crack cocaine was more dangerous than powder cocaine because it was believed to be more addictive and create more violence than powder cocaine; that it was more harmful than powder cocaine; that it was popular with teenagers; and that its low cost made it more accessible and popular.

These concerns and beliefs have proven false. As observed by Congressman Alcee Hastings (D Fl): “Rather than waging war on drugs, [the mandatory minimums for crack offenses] waged war on America’s poor and minorities.” Rep. Hastings also noted that the crack mandatory minimums were “rooted in propaganda rather than empirical data.” (See Congressman Alcee Hastings’ website )

The reality is, the mandatory minimums are not being imposed on the “major” and “serious” suppliers of crack cocaine but instead the majority of crack cocaine defendants are small-scale, street-level dealers. The 100:1 ratio disproportionately impacts far more low-level traffickers than it does the intended targets of the ratio. As observed by the Supreme Court, “the 100-to-1 ratio can lead to the anomalous result that retail crack dealers get longer sentences than the wholesale drug distributors who supply them the powder cocaine from which their crack is produced.” See Kimbrough v. U.S., 128 S.Ct. 558, 564 (U.S.,2007).

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New York criminal defense firm Tilem & Campbell is vigorously challenging the constitutionality of the mandatory minimum sentences for federal crack cocaine offenses set forth in the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 (ADAA). We currently have one appeal on this issue pending before the Second Circuit Court of Appeals and will be filing another appeal shortly.

The ADAA established a two-tier system of sentencing with 5 and 10 year mandatory minimum sentences for certain manufacturing and distribution offenses. Congress passed the 10 year mandatory minimum to combat “major drug dealers” while the 5 year mandatory minimum was for the “serious traffickers”. In reality, however, the mandatory minimums are weight driven. It is the weight of the drugs involved that controls with no regard for whether the defendant is a “major dealer” or “serious trafficker”.

The ADAA also established a 100-to-1 disparity between the distribution of powder cocaine and crack cocaine (21 U.S.C.A. § 841(b)(1)(A), (b)(1)(B)). For example, distributing just 5 grams of crack cocaine (about a thimble full) carries a mandatory minimum five-year federal prison sentence. However, one must distribute 500 grams of powder cocaine to trigger that same five-year federal prison sentence. (21 U.S.C. § 841).

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Just 16 years after the passage of The Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970 which all but eliminated harsh mandatory minimums for federal drug offenses, Congress reversed course and passed The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 (ADAA). The ADAA was passed by Congress during the media frenzy that followed the cocaine induced death of University of Maryland basketball star Len Bias. The ADAA established harsh mandatory minimum sentences for federal drug offenses involving “crack” cocaine (referred to as “cocaine base” in the federal statutes).

Congressional members used Bias’ high-profile death as a political opportunity to portray a “tough on crime” stance. However, Congress utterly failed to undertake any discussion or debate about the failings of the mandatory minimums found in the The Boggs Act of 1951and the Narcotics Control Act of 1956 (which I have discussed in previous blogs).

In fact, Sen. Specter noted that Congress “may be acting with undue haste” and Sen. Mathias stated that none of the members of the Senate “had an adequate opportunity to study this enormous package” and that the ADAA “did not emerge from the crucible of the committee process, tempered by the heat of debate.”