BATON ROUGE (CN) – The chief justice of Louisiana’s Supreme Court blasted her colleagues last week for upholding an 18-year sentence for marijuana possession, calling it “outrageous,” of “little societal value,” and likely to cost state taxpayers more than $400,000.
Chief Justice Bernette Johnson’s remarks came in a stinging May 3 dissent in the case State of Louisiana v. Gary D. Howard.
“I find it outrageous that defendant’s conviction of possession of marijuana with intent to distribute, and sentence of 18 years imprisonment without benefit of parole, probation, or suspension of sentence, resulting from the discovery of a mere 18 grams of marijuana, will be allowed to stand,” Johnson wrote.
At the time of his arrest, Gary Howard had 18 grams of marijuana in his possession, divided between four separate baggies. The officers who arrested him also found a gun on the premises.
The gun charge was ultimately dropped, but a jury convicted Howard of marijuana possession with intent to distribute.
Because Howard had previously been convicted of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, the Caddo Parish judge presiding over his trial sentenced him as a habitual offender.
On review, a majority of the state Supreme Court justices focused on the four baggies, saying that despite the minuscule amount of marijuana involved — barely enough for 18 joints — it was clear Howard intended to sell it rather than keep it for professional use.
This did nothing to mollify Johnson, who wrote “As a practical matter, in light of the inconsequential amount of marijuana found, imprisoning defendant for this extreme length of time at a cost of about $23,000 per year (costing our state over$400,000 in total) provides little societal value and only serves to further burden our financially strapped state and its tax payers.”
Johnson went on to say that in her view there “was a complete lack of evidence presented by the state that the marijuana was not for personal use.”
For instance, she noted, there was no evidence of cash or scales, or any other pertinent indication of distribution, found in the house where Howard was arrested.
Also, the state’s expert acknowledged the marijuana found could have been for personal use. The state’s expert also said it was possible the marijuana was purchased in the same form in which police found it (four separate baggies inside of a larger one), Johnson said.
Johnson said it is likely the state thought it was being hard on Howard by imposing the 18 year sentence because he was a convicted felon, and a gun was also found during the search that turned up weed, and yet the gun charge was ultimately dropped.
“It is apparent to me that the state’s overreaction in this case was colored by the fact that a firearm was found in the closet of the bedroom. The majority also appears to find this fact significant. However, defendant was acquitted of the weapons charge (illegal possession of the firearm while in possession of a controlled dangerous substance) thereby eliminating any evidentiary value of the firearm with regard to proving his intent to distribute the marijuana.”
Johnson said if it was up to her she would vacate the charge and send the case back to the lower court for re-sentencing.