Faulting himself and fellow trial judges for treating defendants on supervised released with a heavy hand for smoking marijuana, U.S. District Judge Jack Weinstein of the Eastern District of New York said he would eschew sending violators to jail solely for using the substance.
In a 42-page ruling to end supervised release for a defendant who is a habitual marijuana smoker and who was out on supervised release for a drug distribution charge, Weinstein said that, despite widespread acceptance and changing societal and legal attitudes toward marijuana, it remains illegal at the federal level for all uses.
The judge said there is “no useful purpose” in continuing to punish defendants who use marijuana but who are otherwise rehabilitated.
“As a result of these errors in our sentencing practice, money and the time of our probation officers are wasted and supervisees are unnecessarily burdened,” the judge said.
Weinstein’s ruling concerns the case of Tyran Trotter, 22, a longtime marijuana user who was busted in 2015 in a dragnet that swept up 36 drug users, drug dealers and a New York State Corrections officer who prosecutors said were associated with a Queens-based gang called the Paper Chasing Goons, a sect of the Bloods.
Trotter eventually pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to distribute heroin and was sentenced to a two-year prison term with three years of supervised release.
While on supervised release, the U.S. Probation Department reported that Trotter violated the terms of his release by using marijuana and failing to comply with drug treatment orders, a charge that can carry mandatory incarceration and to which Trotter pleaded not guilty.
The Probation Department recommended putting Trotter back in prison for an additional four months and tacking an additional two years onto his supervised release.
The judge said that Trotter has otherwise stayed out of trouble since his release from prison and has been working. Keeping him under supervision is unlikely to break his marijuana addiction, a habit he has maintained since he was 12 years old, the judge said.
Considering this, the Weinstein said, keeping Trotter under supervised release will likely result in him entering an “endless cycle” of him being sent back to prison, getting out on supervised release and so forth.
Jeremy Schneider and Lucas Anderson of Rothman, Schneider, Soloway & Stern represented Trotter.
“It would presumptuous of me to think that I could say it better than Judge Weinstein,” Schneider said in an email when asked to comment on the ruling.
Assistant U.S. Attorneys Nomi Berenson and Lauren Elbert of the Eastern District appeared for the government. A spokesman for the Eastern District U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment.
Weinstein used his decision to take a broad view of changing marijuana laws and supervised release, which was created in 1984 after the abolition of federal parole and, the judge said, with the intent of rehabilitating defendants, not punishing them.
Using revocation of supervised release as a means of punishment, which is included in the statute, is “foreign” to the purpose of supervised release, Weinstein said.
Despite continued marijuana prohibition at the federal level, states and cities have veered toward decriminalization—in New York City, police have been directed to issue tickets for smoking marijuana in public rather than arresting violators, while the Manhattan and Brooklyn district attorneys have said they will decline to prosecute certain low-level pot offenses.
Additionally, federal district justices “overwhelmingly” believe that mandatory revocation of probation and supervised release because of drug violations is not ideal, Weinstein said.
The judge pointed to the results of a 2014 survey by the U.S. Sentencing Commission revealing that 85 percent of judges surveyed said that illegal drug possession should not be the basis for revoking a defendant’s supervised release and that 94 percent of judges requested sanctions other than incarceration for violations.
“Violating a condition of supervised release can lead to—and in instances must lead to— additional incarceration,” the judge said. “This situation can trap some defendants, particularly substances abusers, in a cycle where they oscillate between supervised release and prison.”
In the Eastern District, according to Probation Department data contained in Weinstein’s ruling, about 13 percent of revocations are drug-related.
On supervised release generally, Weinstein said it’s become overused: it is required by statute in less than half of federal cases, but he and his fellow Eastern District judges impose it in 94 percent of cases.
And the “reflexive” use of supervised release can increase recidivism among low-risk defendants, the judge said, presenting evidence that the requirements imposed upon them by supervised release can break up their social networks.