Can the President Commute a Drug Sentence?

President Obama has been very vocal during his presidency about the need for criminal justice reform, and lately has been putting his money where his mouth is. Not only did he become the first sitting president to visit a federal prison last summer, he met with several inmates while he was there. He repeatedly tells the nation we need to reconsider the policies and laws we have put in place that have led to the unprecedented spike of incarcerated Americans, and now he is leading the charge to help those unfairly serving long prison sentences.

Obama is Doing His Part

President Obama is not just informing and encouraging the public to make reforms; he is taking a hands-on role in being part of the solution, and commuting the prison sentences of people serving long prison terms under harsh and outdated sentencing laws. After releasing almost 200 prisoners in the previous seven years, he announced the release of an additional 61 prisoners in March, 2016, bringing the total number of sentences he has commuted to 248 to date. That is more commutations than the six previous presidents combined.

President Obama is right to warn the public about the impact our laws and policies are having. Since 1980, the prison population in this country has quadrupled. There are more than 2 million Americans incarcerated, at a cost of more than $80 billion taxpayer dollars per year.

Sentences Commuted in California

Ninety-five sentences were commuted by President Obama back in December 2015, including three Californians serving long term prison sentences for drug possession. The first person whose sentence he commuted was from Bakersfield, and was given a life sentence in 1993 for possession of cocaine with intent to distribute. His sentence was commuted to December 2016. The second Californian whose sentence was commuted was from Stockton, and he was sentenced to 24 years in 1999 for possession of crack with the intent to distribute. His sentence was commuted to April 2016. The third person whose sentence was commuted is from Moreno Valley, and he was sentenced to 30 years in 1997 for planning to distribute 11 pounds of cocaine. His sentence was also commuted to April 2016.

Two of the 61 people whose sentences were reduced in March 2016 were from Los Angeles. The first was sentenced to a 20 year sentence in 2009 for conspiracy to distribute cocaine, cocaine base, heroin, and PCP (there was also a weapons charge), and the second was serving a life sentence since 1991 for possession with intent to distribute 50 grams or more of cocaine base. Both sentences were commuted to July 28, 2016. Bernard Beard of Compton was sentenced in 2009 to a 20-year prison sentence for conspiracy to distribute cocaine, cocaine base, heroin and PCP, as well as an arms charge.

Drug Charges in California Can Obviously Have Serious Consequences

Possession of an illegal substance can be a misdemeanor or felony under California law depending on whether there was intent to sell the drug. It depends on what drug we are talking about, and how much of the drug is involved. If a prosecutor can prove that you possessed drugs with the intent to sell them to other people, the penalties are far more severe. If it is a second or subsequent offense, or there are other aggravating factors, the penalties become even more severe.

California Health and Safety Code 11351 HS

California Health and Safety Code 11351 HS prohibits the possession of certain controlled substances for purposes of selling. Drugs that are prohibited include the Schedule I drugs (GHB, mescaline, heroin, and peyote); Schedule II drugs (opium), and any Schedule III, IV, and V narcotics. Even the possession of codeine and hydrocodone with intent to sell is outlawed by this section.

Elements of Possession with Intent to Distribute

To be convicted of possession with intent to distribute, the prosecutor must be able to prove you knowingly possessed or purchased the drug in questions; that you purchased enough to use or sell; and that you purchased it with the intent of selling it. Conviction for possession with intent to sell requires that you knowingly possessed/purchased the drug (knowing it was a controlled substance); that there was enough of the drug to use or sell; and that you purchased or possessed the illicit substance with the intent of selling it. Proving intent is difficult, and an experienced criminal defense attorney can fight these accusations on your behalf.

Penalties, Punishment, and Sentencing for Possession with Intent to Distribute

– Possession Penalties

The penalties are far more severe for possession with intent to distribute than they are for mere possession. Felony possession of an illegal substance is punishable with a wide range of penalties, from probation to up to three years in jail, while misdemeanor possession (which applies only to certain depressants and GHB), is punishable with a fine of up to $1000 and up to a year in jail. This means that if you are caught with an illicit substance, it is a smart idea to try proving the possession is for personal use, not the possession with the intent to distribute.

– Possession with Intent to Distribute Penalties

The sale or intent to sell illicit substances is punishable with three to five years on prison (three, six, or nine years if the drugs were taken through more than two counties. Some drugs, like cocaine base, carry increased penalties. Possession with intent to distribute cocaine base is punishable by three to five years in prison and a $20,000 fine. Your sentence can also be increased as a result of your prior criminal history. If you have another felony drug conviction on your record, then there you might be sentenced an additional three years in prison on top of your sentence.

Call Ozols Law Firm if you are facing a charge of drug possession, or the more serious possession with intent to distribute. There are defenses that can be raised to help mitigate or avoid liability altogether, especially with the growing consensus on the need for reform in the criminal justice system. It is important to have an experienced San Diego drug crimes lawyer to help you vigorously fight any charges of possession or intent; Mr. Ozols will fight for your future and your freedom from day one.