The U.S. Supreme Court could decide today whether to hear the case of Lee Carroll Brooker - a 75-year-old veteran from Alabama who got a life sentence with no chance of parole after he was caught growing marijuana for his personal, medical use in 2011.
According to Alabama law, if someone has certain prior convictions and is caught with with 2.2 pounds of marijuana or more, they will automatically receive a life sentence - regardless of why they were growing it or if they had any intentions to sell it.
Brooker was busted with 34 plants, which might seem like a lot. But in the Canadian city of Markham, a patient is legally allowed to grow 146 marijuana plants, so 34 isn't exactly shocking. Indeed, law enforcers had to collect every bit of the plant - including vines and stalks that aren't smoked - just to get the weight up to 2.8 lbs. for the case.
Trial judge opposed the mandatory sentence
The judge who tried the case was dismayed by the sentence he was forced to hand Brooker.
"[I]f the court could sentence you to a term that's less than life with no parole, I would," the judge said according to an opinion written by Alabama Supreme Court Justice C.J. Moore, who urged state legislators to revisit the mandatory sentencing law.
"In my view, Brooker's sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole for a nonviolent, drug-regulated crime reveals grave flaws in our statutory sentencing scheme," Justice Moore wrote in his opinion on the case.
But, Alabama's top court upheld the sentence, probably because the law - whether it is just or not - was clear, says attorney Robert McVay.
"Generally, a court is going to only be able to depart from the letter of the law if the law is written ambiguously or vaguely," McVay told Civilized. "Then they have some room to interpret what the legislature intended to mean. But in this circumstance, you have a state law that was not ambiguous - it was clear. It's hard to see how the Alabama judge could have ruled differently."
Brooker's case could challenge mandatory sentencing
Sadly, Brooker's case Is not an isolated incident, and it could happen again in Alabama or other states with similarly draconian laws involving mandatory life sentences stemming from simple possession offences: South Dakota, Louisiana and Mississippi.
However, that could change. Brooker is appealing the law on the grounds that it violates the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. If his sentence is overruled, the decision would have a huge impact on the American justice system.
"If the case is heard, it absolutely could bring a pretty broad sea change," McVay said. "But I don't think it would be a sea change in terms of marijuana legality. I think the big push that this case could have is criminal justice reform in general, to decide if it's cruel and unusual punishment to send someone to jail for life without parole for a non-violent, victimless offence."
But McVay wonders whether the Supreme Court would hear a case that would interfere with how states handle sentencing laws. Instead, he thinks the states themselves should recognize and fix these unjust laws.
"The real fault here is on state legislators who do two things - who criminalize marijuana, and who continue to pull authority away from judges with these hardline [sentencing laws] that make it harder for judges and prosecutors to do their jobs effectively and mete out fair justice to defendants."