Again and again, the nation’s so-called “War on Drugs” has proven itself to be an extremely harsh system that does more harm than good. Harsh mandatory minimums, the draconian “three strikes” policy, and racial/ethnic biases on the side of law enforcement officers and juries have targeted minorities for decades.
Unfortunately, the War on Drugs has victimized another family with incredibly harsh treatment, forcing the family to take on the justice system.
This case involves the sentencing of an African-American man in Gilmer, Texas. He was pulled over after a road rage incident in which he allegedly threw a beer bottle. No one was hurt or arrested for road rage after the incident, but when law enforcement searched the man’s car, they found around 16 grams of cocaine.
That’s right – 80 years behind bars for a nonviolent drug possession crime. In the wake of the sentencing, the man’s family set up a Change.org petition pledging to fight back against the charges.
It is not hard to see why this family would believe the 80-year sentence is a radically unfair given the nature of the offense, especially in light of how Texas juries generally treat crimes of this nature.
In this post, we’re going to go over the law as written… and why you might face a more severe sentence if convicted than a quick glance at the law implies.
The Statute on Cocaine Possession Charges in Texas
Texas law determines penalties for drug possession charges based on the amount of drugs present, the intentions behind the possession, and the defendant’s past criminal record. Even when you consider all of these factors, it’s still hard to justify 80 years behind bars.
What are the penalties for possessing 16 grams of cocaine?
Possessing any amount of cocaine in Texas is a felony. If the defendant is found guilty of:
- Possessing under a gram of cocaine, they may face up to two years in jail and $10,000 in fines.
- Possessing between one and four grams of cocaine is punishable by 2-10 years in jail and up to $10,000 in fines.
- Possessing between four and 200 grams of cocaine is punishable between 2-20 years in jail and up to $10,000 in fines.
Let’s pause a moment.
The man exampled above was charged with possessing 16 grams of cocaine, which would place him on that last set of potential consequences. Even if you set aside the ridiculousness of lumping four and 200 grams of cocaine together, the maximum suggested penalty is 20 years behind bars.
So, why is this man facing 80 years for only 16 grams?
Intent Behind the Possession
Large quantities of controlled substances are often penalized harshly because prosecutors may believe the defendant is selling, distributing, or trafficking drugs. This is certainly a more serious crime than possessing controlled substances for personal use.
Penalties for possession with intention to distribute also range depending on the type and amount of controlled substances involved in the case. The harshest suggested penalties include up to 99 years behind bars.
However, these guidelines only apply to the most serious first degree felony charges, which require there to be over 400 grams of controlled substances.
Once again, the man exampled here had only 16 grams of cocaine. Moreover, while he was originally charged with possession with intention to distribute, his charges were reduced before his sentencing. That would seem to eliminate any argument that the man intended to distribute the drugs as a basis for the extraordinarily harsh sentence.
The Weight of Past Convictions in Texas
When the jury of 11 white jurors and one black juror delivered their justification of the sentence, they argued that the man’s past convictions made it a fair one.
He had previously been convicted of possession with intent to deliver, possession of a controlled substance, and assault on a public servant. Unfortunately, this brings the notorious “Three Strikes” concept into play.
Texas has always been notorious for harsh punishments given under the Three Strikes law.
From 1856 to 1973, the law stated, “Any person who shall have been three times convicted of a felony, less than capital, shall, on such third conviction, be imprisoned to hard labor for life in the penitentiary.”
The law has since been changed, but still allows juries to sentence repeat offenders up to 99 years behind bars for a third felony conviction.
Staunch advocates of Three Strikes policies have since rescinded their support (most notably, Bill and Hillary Clinton). Three Strikes laws put people behind bars for life for such ridiculous things as stealing a sandwich from Whole Foods and stealing $230 worth of merchandise.
Regardless of the ridiculousness of the Three Strikes law, this at least offers some sort of rationale for the man’s 80 years behind bars. However, this legal “reasoning” does not equate to “reasonable.”
As we look at the history of drug crimes in Texas and the grief that the man’s family will go through this holiday season, we have to ask: do these laws and policies protect society? Or do they instead lazily punish offenders without giving them a chance to be rehabilitated? What are we really trying to achieve?