Should people serve life sentences for dealing two kilograms of cocaine?
That was the sentence given to Sherman Ray Meirovitz of Minneapolis following a 1988 arrest. And because he had been in prison before (he was considered a drug kingpin), he was declared a career criminal and sent away for life.
Today, President Barack Obama commuted Meirovitz’ sentence along with those of 41 other people.
What’s his story? Consider this from his failed appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals.
Meirovitz was arrested on November 30, 1988, after he tried to purchase two kilograms of cocaine from undercover agents. His arrest was the result of an investigation into narcotics trafficking involving persons in Colorado, New York and Minnesota.
In April 1988 the agents followed Munir Ahmed, the central figure in a narcotics trafficking organization, to the Embassy Suites Hotel in Bloomington, Minnesota. They saw Jack Sears and another suspect board Ahmed’s flight from Denver to Minnesota; all three men stayed at the Embassy Suites Hotel. The agents did not see these men participating in drug activity on this occasion.
After continued surveillance of Sears in Denver, the police seized Sears’ car, believing it had been used for a drug transaction. Sears agreed to cooperate in the investigation.
Sears told the investigators that he was introduced to Meirovitz in December 1986, and that five months afterwards, Meirovitz asked Sears if he could put together a deal for one pound of cocaine. Sears sold the cocaine to Meirovitz for approximately $17,000. Sears also told the investigators that he sold Meirovitz one to four pounds of cocaine approximately every two months.
Sears agreed to call Meirovitz and attempt to set up a deal. Sears told Meirovitz that he had a new source who could provide cocaine for $18,500 per kilogram. Meirovitz said he was interested in two kilograms and that he would like to make partial payment in methamphetamine. Sears agreed and the deal was set up for the end of November 1988.
After Sears and the investigators arrived in Minnesota and wired the hotel room to record the conversations, Sears called Meirovitz to complete the transaction. Meirovitz arrived with $35,700 in cash, one ounce of methamphetamine (worth $1,300), a scale, calculators, plastic baggies, a mirror, and chemicals to test the quality of the cocaine.
Meirovitz was given the two kilograms of cocaine and one of the undercover agents began counting the money. Meirovitz began explaining in detail the source of the methamphetamine and said that he expected a larger quantity later. As Meirovitz tested the cocaine’s quality, the other agents entered the room and arrested him.
Meirovitz was advised of his rights and agreed to be interviewed by the agents. Meirovitz confirmed Sears’ account of their initial meeting and subsequent drug deals. He also told the agents of a lab in California that was being set up to produce twenty pounds of methamphetamine. Meirovitz then consented to a search of his home and car.
The search of his home produced $9,500 in $100 bills, seven handguns in a laundry chute, a small-caliber handgun and ammunition, papers characterized by the government as “drug notes,” drug-cutting agents (lactose, mannitol and nicotinamide), an electronic digital scale, drug-related books, numerous plastic baggies, and a hollow battery that contained twelve grams of methamphetamine.
At trial, Meirovitz testified that he had not been involved in the use or distribution of drugs since his release from prison in December 1984. Meirovitz said that Sears asked him to distribute drugs, but that he refused.
Meirovitz claimed that Sears kept on pressuring him, threatening violence and exposure of Meirovitz’ involvement with a prostitute. Meirovitz maintained that he agreed to go along with Sears’ deal out of fear. Meirovitz claimed that Sears told him to bring the methamphetamine and to act like he knew what he was doing.
Under the president’s commutation, Meirovitz will get out of prison one year from today.
Many prosecutors who once embraced the war on drugs now acknowledge the U.S. “can’t arrest our way” out of the drug epidemic. While sentencing is changing, Obama’s actions today shine a spotlight on the people who were sent away for life.
It also shines a light on the wildly out-of-whack criminal sentencing from district to district and courtroom to courtroom, despite sentencing guidelines.
Consider two cases in Hennepin County this week, for example.
Richard Collins, 22, of Minneapolis, was supposed to serve a 90-day jail term for the armed robbery of people in a sports bar. That’s a felony. But the judge imposed a non-felony sentence. He also will be allowed to leave jail to attend training for his Minnesota National Guard unit. Why the Minnesota National Guard wants an armed robber is another question for another time.
Pedro Ortiz Morales, 40, of Minneapolis, a hotel employee, snuck into a guest’s room and sexually assaulted her while she slept. This week he was sentenced in Hennepin County to a year in jail. He could’ve gotten 15 but, according to the Star Tribune, he “took responsibility” for what he did.
There’s an argument to be made about whether any of the sentences — Collins’, Morales’, or Meirovitz’ — fit the crime for which they were convicted. Each is different, of course.
Today’s commutation, along with those from last month, are consistent with Obama’s insistence that the penalties for non-violent drug offenses have been far too severe, inviting us to consider how drug dealing stacks up with armed robbery and rape, for example.
Obama urged the House and the Senate to cooperate on a bipartisan basis to pass a criminal justice reform bill, an unlikely occurrence in an election year.
Meanwhile, Meirovitz has a year to prepare for living in a world that isn’t 1988 anymore.
Related sentence: Rapist gets six month jail term. Judge says harsh sentence would’ve had “severe impact on him.” (New York Magazine)