U.S. v. Angelos, 2:02-CR-00708PGC.

Citation345 F.Supp.2d 1227
Decision Date16 November 2004
Docket NumberNo. 2:02-CR-00708PGC.,2:02-CR-00708PGC.
PartiesUNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff, v. Weldon ANGELOS, Defendant.
CourtUnited States District Courts. 10th Circuit. United States District Court of Utah

Jeffrey B. Sklaroff, Harry H. Rimm, Greenberg Traurig LLP, New York, NY, amicus.

Jerome H. Mooney, Mooney Law Firm, Salt Lake City, UT, for Defendant.

Richard W. Daynes, Robert A. Lund, U.S. Attorney's Office, for Plaintiff.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER IMPOSING DENYING MOTION TO FIND 18 U.S.C. § 924(c) UNCONSTITUTIONAL, IMPOSING SENTENCE, AND RECOMMENDING EXECUTIVE CLEMENCY

CASSELL, District Judge.

                TABLE OF CONTENTS
                Introduction ...............................................................1230
                  I. Factual Background ....................................................1231
                 II. Legislative History and Judicial Interpretation of § 924(c)............1233
                III. Mr. Angelos' Equal Protection Challenge to the Statute.................1235
                     A.  Equal Protection Review of Criminal Statutes ......................1235
                         1. General Equal Protection Principles ............................1235
                         2. The Court's Obligation to Search for a Rational Basis ..........1237
                     B.  The Irrationality of § 924(c) .....................................1239
                         1. Mr. Angelos Effectively Receives a Life Sentence Under § 924(c).1239
                         2. Unjust Punishment from § 924(c) ................................1239
                         3. Irrational Classifications .....................................1243
                            a. Classifications Between Offenses ............................1243
                            b. Irrational Classifications Between Offenders ................1248
                         4. Demeaning Victims of Actual Violence and Creating the Risk of
                             Backlash ......................................................1251
                     C.  Justifications for § 924(c) .......................................1252
                 IV. Cruel and Unusual Punishment ..........................................1256
                     A. Mr. Angelos' Offenses and the Contemplated Penalty .................1257
                     B. Comparison to Penalties for Other Offenses .........................1258
                     C. Comparison to Other Jurisdictions ..................................1259
                     D. Application of the Harmelin Factors in Light of Davis ..............1259
                  V. Calculating the Sentence ..............................................1260
                 VI. Recommendations to Other Branches of Government .......................1261
                     A. Recommendation for Executive Commutation ...........................1261
                
                     B. Recommendation for Legislative Reform ..............................1262
                CONCLUSION .................................................................1263
                
Introduction

Defendant Weldon Angelos stands now before the court for sentencing. He is a twenty-four-year-old first offender who is a successful music executive with two young children. Because he was convicted of dealing marijuana and related offenses, both the government and the defense agree that Mr. Angelos should serve about six to eight years in prison. But there are three additional firearms offenses for which the court must also impose sentence. Two of those offenses occurred when Mr. Angelos carried a handgun to two $350 marijuana deals; the third when police found several additional handguns at his home when they executed a search warrant. For these three acts of possessing (not using or even displaying) these guns, the government insists that Mr. Angelos should essentially spend the rest of his life in prison. Specifically, the government urges the court to sentence Mr. Angelos to a prison term of no less than 61 ½ years — six years and a half (or more) for drug dealing followed by 55 years for three counts of possessing a firearm in connection with a drug offense. In support of its position, the government relies on a statute18 U.S.C. § 924(c) — which requires the court to impose a sentence of five years in prison the first time a drug dealer carries a gun and twenty-five years for each subsequent time. Under § 924(c), the three counts produce 55 years of additional punishment for carrying a firearm.

The court believes that to sentence Mr. Angelos to prison for the rest of his life is unjust, cruel, and even irrational. Adding 55 years on top of a sentence for drug dealing is far beyond the roughly two-year sentence that the congressionally-created expert agency (the United States Sentencing Commission) believes is appropriate for possessing firearms under the same circumstances. The 55-year sentence substantially exceeds what the jury recommended to the court. It is also far in excess of the sentence imposed for such serious crimes as aircraft hijacking, second degree murder, espionage, kidnapping, aggravated assault, and rape. It exceeds what recidivist criminals will likely serve under the federal "three strikes" provision. At the same time, however, this 55-year additional sentence is decreed by § 924(c).

The court's role in evaluating § 924(c) is quite limited. The court can set aside the statute only if it is irrational punishment without any conceivable justification or is so excessive as to constitute cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment. After careful deliberation, the court reluctantly concludes that it has no choice but to impose the 55 year sentence. While the sentence appears to be cruel, unjust, and irrational, in our system of separated powers Congress makes the final decisions as to appropriate criminal penalties. Under the controlling case law, the court must find either that a statute has no conceivable justification or is so grossly disproportionate to the crime that no reasonable argument can be made its behalf. If the court is to fairly apply these precedents in this case, it must reject Mr. Angelos' constitutional challenges. Accordingly, the court sentences Mr. Angelos to a prison term of 55 years and one day, the minimum that the law allows.

To correct what appears to be an unjust sentence, the court also calls on the President — in whom our Constitution reposes the power to correct unduly harsh sentences — to commute Mr. Angelos' sentence to something that is more in accord with just and rational punishment. In particular, the court recommends that the President commute Mr. Angelos' sentence to no more than 18 years in prison, the average sentence that the jurors in this case recommended. In addition, the court also calls on Congress to modify § 924(c) so that its harsh provisions for 25-year multiple sentences apply only to true recidivist drug offenders — those who have been sent to prison and failed to learn their lesson. Because of the complexity of these conclusions, the court will set out their basis at some length.

I. Factual Background

Weldon Angelos is twenty-four years old. He was born on July 16, 1979, in Salt Lake City, Utah. He was raised in the Salt Lake City area by his father, Mr. James B. Angelos, with only minimal contact with his mother. Mr. Angelos has two young children by Ms. Zandrah Uyan: six-year-old Anthony and five-year-old Jessie. Before his arrest Mr. Angelos had achieved some success in the music industry. He started Extravagant Records, a label that produces rap and hip hop music. He had worked with prominent hip hop musicians, including Snoop Dogg, on the "beats" to various songs and was preparing to record his own album.

The critical events in this case are three "controlled buys" of marijuana by a government informant from Mr. Angelos. On May 10, 2002, Mr. Angelos met with the informant, Ronnie Lazalde, and arranged a sale of marijuana. On May 21, 2002, Mr. Angelos completed a sale of a eight ounces of marijuana to Lazalde for $350. Lazalde observed Mr. Angelos' Glock pistol by the center console of his car. This drug deal formed the basis for the first § 924(c) count.

During a second controlled buy with Lazalde, on June 4, 2002, Mr. Angelos lifted his pant leg to show him the Glock in an ankle holster. Lazalde again purchased approximately eight ounces of marijuana for $350. This deal formed the basis for the second § 924(c) count.

A third controlled buy occurred on June 18, 2002, with Mr. Angelos again selling Lazalde eight ounces of marijuana for $350. There was no direct evidence of a gun at this transaction, so no § 924(c) count was charged.

On November 15, 2003, police officers arrested Mr. Angelos at his apartment pursuant to a warrant. Mr. Angelos consented to a search. The search revealed a briefcase which contained $18,040, a handgun, and two opiate suckers. Officers also discovered two bags which contained approximately three pounds of marijuana. Officers also recovered two other guns in a locked safe, one of which was confirmed as stolen. Searches at other locations, including the apartment of Mr. Angelos' girlfriend, turned up several duffle bags with marijuana residue, two more guns, and additional cash.

The original indictment issued against Mr. Angelos contained three counts of distribution of marijuana,1 one § 924(c) count for the firearm at the first controlled buy, and two other lesser charges. Plea negotiations began between the government and Mr. Angelos. On January 20, 2003, the government told Mr. Angelos, through counsel, that if he pled guilty to the drug distribution count and the § 924(c) count, the government would agree to drop all other charges, not supersede the indictment with additional counts, and recommend a prison sentence of 15 years. The government made clear to Mr. Angelos that if he rejected the offer, the government would obtain a new superseding indictment adding several § 924(c) counts that could lead to Mr. Angelos facing more than 100 years of mandatory prison time. In short, Mr. Angelos faced the choice of accepting 15 years in prison or insisting on a trial by jury at the risk of a life sentence. Ultimately, Mr. Angelos rejected the offer and decided to go to...

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