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Supreme Court rules against longer prison sentences in order to rehabilitate

Supreme Court justices rule 9-0 that federal law does not allow judges to lengthen sentences with the aim of rehabilitating prisoners.

June 17, 2011|By David G. Savage, Washington Bureau
  • More than 80,000 convicted criminals are sentenced by federal judges each year.
More than 80,000 convicted criminals are sentenced by federal judges each… (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Washington — Judges may not send criminals to longer terms in federal prison with the aim of rehabilitating them, the Supreme Court ruled.

The 9-0 ruling Thursday is a victory for a San Diego-area woman who questioned a judge's decision to give her more time behind bars so she could participate in a drug treatment program.

More than 80,000 convicted criminals are sentenced by federal judges each year, and until Thursday, the courts were split over whether defendants could be given more time behind bars for their own good.

Citing the words of the federal sentencing act, the justices said the law forbids using imprisonment as a "means of promoting correction and rehabilitation."

The ruling will likely shorten the sentence of Alejandra Tapia. She was arrested at San Ysidro in 2008 and charged with trying to smuggle two illegal immigrants across the border from Mexico. When she did not appear for a court hearing, agents went to her apartment and found methamphetamine.

The minimum sentence for her crimes was three years, but U.S. District Judge Barry Moskowitz decided on the maximum term of 51 months, just over four years. "She needs help," the judge said. She needs to be in prison "long enough to get the 500-hour drug program" so she can "start to make a recovery," he said.

Meanwhile, in a case out of Alabama, the court warned again that it is determined to narrow the scope of the "exclusionary rule" and its requirement for throwing out evidence resulting from illegal searches.

"Society must swallow this bitter pill when necessary, but only as a last resort," wrote Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. The exclusion of evidence "is not a personal constitutional right," he said for a 7-2 majority, but only a means to "deter future" wrongdoing by the police.

In Davis vs. United States, the high court upheld gun charges against Willie Davis, an Alabama man who was a passenger in a car stopped on suspicion of drunken driving. He was handcuffed, and an officer searched the car, found a weapon and arrested him on charges of being a felon in possession of a firearm.

Two years later, the Supreme Court ruled that the police may not search cars when a motorist is stopped, unless there is an apparent danger. Davis said his gun was found through such an illegal search, and he said his conviction should be overturned.

The high court disagreed.

"It is one thing for the criminal 'to go free because the constable has blundered.' It is quite another to set the criminal free because the constable has scrupulously adhered to the law," Alito wrote.

Since the police in Alabama did nothing wrong under the law at that time, the evidence need not be excluded, he said.

Only Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented.

In a third criminal case, Carol Bond, a Philadelphia-area chemist, won the right to challenge her conviction under a federal anti-terrorism law. When she learned that a friend had an affair with her husband, she allegedly tried to poison the woman by putting caustic chemicals in her mailbox and on a car door handle.

Rather than charge her with a domestic crime, a federal prosecutor charged her under a chemical weapons provision, and she was given six years in prison.

To no one's surprise, the high court agreed that Bond had a right to challenge this prosecution as an unconstitutional use of federal power. But Justice Anthony M. Kennedy took the opportunity to write a broad opinion on the need to restrain federal power to protect individual liberty.

"By denying any one government complete jurisdiction over all concerns of public life, federalism protects the liberty of the individual from arbitrary power," he wrote. "When government acts in excess of its lawful power, that liberty is at stake."

Kennedy is seen as holding the crucial vote if the high court takes up a constitutional challenge to President Obama's national healthcare law and its mandate that all Americans have health insurance. Critics of the law were quick to cite Kennedy's words as bolstering their legal attack.

david.savage@latimes.com

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