Rejecting claims of racial discrimination in a pending crack cocaine case, a federal judge ruled Monday that the U.S. attorney's office does not have to open its files to defense lawyers exploring whether minorities are selectively prosecuted for crack offenses.
The decision is a victory for federal authorities, who have been accused repeatedly of unfairly targeting black and Latino communities for crack cocaine investigations since 1986 when Congress passed tough sentences for crimes involving the drug.
Court records show that only one white person has ever been prosecuted for a crack cocaine offense out of almost 200 crack cases filed at the U.S. courthouse in Los Angeles. Nationally, about 97% of all federal crack defendants have been minorities, triggering an intense political and legal debate about the impact of the nation's crack laws on blacks and Latinos. Earlier this month, black state legislators asked the U.S. attorney general to explain the disparity among races.
In Monday's court proceeding, attorneys Peter N. Priamos and Hector Perez, who are representing two men suspected of crack trafficking, sought access to information from the U.S. attorney's office that might have answered their concerns about selective prosecution.
But after considering a detailed 500-page pleading by the government, District Judge Consuelo B. Marshall concluded that there was not enough evidence of racial discrimination to justify Priamos' request. Under federal law, defendants must provide some indication of discrimination before the government has to disclose the information sought.
"The defense simply has not raised a colorable showing of selective prosecution in the instant case," Marshall said.
Priamos and Perez made the request on behalf of Anthony Henry, an African American, and Paul Lopez, a Latino, both of Compton. They were arrested by the FBI in 1994, more than a year after they allegedly sold 96 grams (less than 4 ounces) of crack cocaine to an undercover agent. If convicted, Henry and Lopez could be sentenced to life in prison. Their trial is scheduled for Sept. 12.
Both defense attorneys sought records related to arrests made by federal agencies and federal drug task forces as well as information showing how and why federal authorities investigate and prosecute suspected crack offenders.
In court, Priamos and Perez cited statistics showing that all crack defendants represented by the federal public defender in Los Angeles have been African American--an indication, they said, of racial discrimination.
They also noted a study by a UCLA professor showing that hundreds of white crack offenders are prosecuted in state court, where the penalties are a fraction of what they are in the federal system. Federal crack violations carry mandatory minimum sentences of five and 10 years, depending on the amount of the drug. In state court, the maximum penalty is five years.
"The discriminatory effect has been shown," Perez argued. "We need to know how these people are arrested and how they are steered through the court system. Right now, you have zero whites in federal court and some whites showing up in state court."
Challenging the defense request, seven federal prosecutors, a top-ranking FBI agent and the Compton police chief showed up in Marshall's court. Chief Assistant U.S. Atty. Richard E. Drooyan said that prosecutors and investigators spent more than 1,000 hours researching crack cases and preparing for the hearing.
Armed with the 500-page pleading, federal prosecutors argued that race has never been a factor in their decisions regarding whom to investigate and prosecute. They said they focus on dealers in minority communities because that is where the crack trade has been the most violent and destructive.
In their court papers, federal authorities said that under "race-neutral" guidelines, they target gang members, repeat offenders, potentially violent suspects and large-quantity dealers--those selling two ounces or more.
Prosecutors argued that in the 149 crack cases filed from January, 1992, to March of this year, many of the defendants met at least two of the filing criteria and about 65% of those charged had felony records.
"If you look at the complete record, there is no colorable basis to show that we engage in any selective prosecution," Drooyan said. "We use objective law enforcement criteria to make our decisions. It is the right allocation of law enforcement resources to deal with a problem in the community."
In her ruling, Marshall noted that federal prosecutors had provided the court substantially more information about their policies than they had in a previous crack cocaine case.
Marshall eventually dismissed that case involving five crack defendants because prosecutors failed to heed her order to turn over records to the defense. That dismissal was upheld in March by a federal appeals court, and the U.S. attorney has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the matter.