- - Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Last month, Rogel Lazaro Aguilera-Mederos, a 23-year old truck driver, was sentenced to 110 years in prison for unintentionally causing a wreck that killed four people and injured others. Aguilera-Mederos, who failed to use a runaway ramp after his brakes failed while speeding on I-70 in Colorado, was convicted of vehicular homicide charges and the lesser charges of first-degree assault and attempted first-degree assault for the four Coloradans who died.

A tearful and apologetic Aguilera-Mederos, who was not intoxicated at the time of the accident, told the court, “It hurts. I ask God too many times why them and not me? Why did I survive that accident?”

Mr. Aguilera’s case drew more than five million signatures on a Change.org petition, calling upon Gov. Jared Polis to grant clemency or commute his sentence. Last week, the Colorado governor acted upon the public outcry, reasonably reducing Mr. Aguilera’s sentence to 10 years.  

Had Mr. Aguilera been convicted solely on vehicular homicide charges, he would have potentially only faced a recommended sentence of two to six years. But since first-degree assault and attempted first-degree assault are considered “crimes of violence” and arise from the same incident as the vehicular manslaughter charge, the state imposed a “mandatory minimum sentence.” In Aguilera-Mederos’ case, the law mandated his sentences must run consecutively, not concurrently.
As a former prosecutor, I have seen the unintended consequences of mandatory minimum sentencing and how it creates a coercive justice system. Prosecutors who believe their case has mitigating circumstances must resort to one of three options to shield defendants from an unjust mandatory sentence: They can decline to file, downgrade a charge or offer the defendant a plea bargain for a lesser charge without a mandatory minimum sentence. The latter option is the most common and often compels a defendant who wants to assert their innocence at trial to instead plead guilty to a lesser charge just to avoid a harsh mandatory sentence.

This latter option may seem inconsequential since it appears the defendant would benefit from being charged with a lesser crime. But the effect of this widespread solution violates the Constitution’s presumption of innocence implicit in the Fifth, Sixth and 14th Amendments because it compels Americans who believe they are innocent to waive their right to trial since they know if they are convicted, even their judge can do nothing to shield them from a draconian, mandatory sentence.

However, the state recently amended its mandatory minimum law, and it now offers a safe harbor provision for judicial “reconsideration.” This permits the sentencing judge to reconsider the original sentence after the defendant begins serving their time, provided the case is “exceptional” and “involve[s] unusual and extenuating circumstances.”

Under this provision, even if Mr. Polis did not commute Aguilera-Mederos’ sentence, the sentencing judge could have reconsidered his sentence. Although this type of provision is unusual, some jurisdictions are considering similar reform. In California, a newly formed state commission is considering eliminating mandatory sentences for nonviolent crimes and allowing judges to reconsider all sentences after someone has spent 15 years in prison.

“The federal system used to allow judges to reconsider a sentence for a period of time after they issued it, but that has since been abolished,” lawyer Alan Dershowitz told me in a telephone interview. “Judges can only reconsider a sentence now if the government asks for it. The vast majority of criminal cases aren’t covered by these types of ‘reconsideration provisions,’ so there is a need for change.” 

Mr. Dershowitz’s assessment about a need for change could not be more accurate as mandatory minimum sentences have done more than negatively impact the defendants’ constitutional rights facing the loss of their liberty. They have also undermined the independence of the judicial branch, subjugating judges who hear the unique facts of cases to the will of legislators who do not, turning courtrooms into mere star chambers issuing rubber stamp sentences for elected officials reacting to public outcry. 

Our framer’s intent to keep the legislature out of the judiciary is inherent in Article I, Section, Paragraph 3 of the Constitution, which prohibits Congress from passing ‘bills of attainder’ that punish people for crimes and ‘ex-post facto laws’ that retroactively implement punishment.

In 1965, the Supreme Court ruled in U.S. v. Brown that, “The Bill of Attainder Clause was intended not as a narrow, technical (and soon to be outmoded) prohibition, but rather as an implementation of the separation of powers, a general safeguard against legislative exercise of the judicial function or more simply — trial by legislature.”

In his 2002 book, “The Supreme Court,” former Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist’s affirmed this position, writing that “it [is] the traditional role of a court, judging an individual case, to impose punishment.” 

Although elected legislators rightly hold the constitutional power to create law, that power, like all power in our republic, is limited and should not hamper appropriate judicial discretion to preserve the rights of the accused. 

• Jeffrey Scott Shapiro served as an Assistant Attorney General for the District of Columbia from 2007 to 2009. He is a practicing lawyer and the Assistant Commentary Editor for The Washington Times. 

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