JEFFREY KAYE: Los Angeles erupted in flames in 1992, after four police officers were acquitted in state court of unlawfully beating Rodney King. One year later, authorities braced for more disturbances as two of the officers were acquitted and two convicted on federal charges of violating King's civil rights. The city remained calm, but the case sparked a legal battle over the nation's federal sentencing system. Laurence Powell and Stacey Koon were sentenced to thirty months in prison, far short of the seventy to eighty-seven month range which prosecutors maintain were mandated by federal sentencing guidelines.
TERREE BOWERS, Former U.S. Attorney: (August 1993) The government argued vigorously for its position. We are disappointed by the downward departures imposed today.
JEFFREY KAYE: While Koon and Powell served out their prison terms, prosecutors appealed. They argued and an appellate court agreed that the judge should have stuck to the guidelines, a set of rules which set sentences based on types of crimes and criminal records. Hoping to avoid more prison time, the former police officers took their case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
LAURIE LEVENSON, Law Professor: Well, actually there's a lot more at stake than this case, than even just the Rodney King case.
JEFFREY KAYE: According to Law Professor Laurie Levenson, this case could also determine how much discretion federal judges have in sentencing.
LAURIE LEVENSON: Frankly, when the Supreme Court took this case, they decided to take a look at the sentencing guidelines. And there's a great deal of controversy about those guidelines. The question boils down to this: Should trial judges, judges like Judge Davies, have broad or narrow discretion in sentencing people under the guidelines?
JEFFREY KAYE: Judge John Davies ruled that because this was a unique case, he could depart from the guidelines. Davies concluded King had provoked his own beating by refusing to comply with the officers' orders and by trying to evade arrest. He also said that because of their notoriety, Koon and Powell had suffered by losing their jobs and might undergo further punishment in prison by abusive inmates. Powell's lawyer, William Kopeny, defends the judge's decision. He says Powell and Koon have been in constant fear for their lives.
WILLIAM KOPENY, Lawyer for Powell: What the judge focused on was their punishment would be harder, they would either have to be kept in protective custody, which would be much more difficult than being in a general population prison, or they would have to every day of their life, every minute of their life in prison, suffer the psychological concern of "Am I going to be stabbed in the back?"
JEFFREY KAYE: Kopeny says the judge's so-called downward departure from the guidelines was justified by the unusual circumstances of the case.
WILLIAM KOPENY: I think what Judge Davies did is say, they're going to have to do harder time than another person in their position, so I'm going to make them do less of it, and that, it seems to me, to be a very rational basis for concluding that the sentence, a downward departure should be granted. And the government has–can't point to any statute or case law or any reason that that reasoning could not be employed by a district judge. It makes it a unique case too.
JEFFREY KAYE: But U.S. Attorney Nora Manella argues that this was a typical police brutality case, and no special dispensation should be allowed because of its notoriety.
NORA MANELLA, U.S. Attorney, Los Angeles: As to the fact that it was a notorious case, we certainly wouldn't want to create a discount for people simply because their behavior was so offensive that it caused outrage throughout the entire world. As to the likelihood of additional punishment in prison, again, we don't create discounts for people whose offenses are so bad that they may even offend their fellow inmates. If we were to give a discount on that basis, we would be giving discounts to child molesters who are notoriously unpopular in prison, we'd be giving discounts to gang members, who might be subject to retaliation from rival gang members. That's simply not an appropriate basis for discounting sentences.
JEFFREY KAYE: Prosecutors also say the judge should have disregarded King's initial combative behavior because King was beaten after he offered no resistance. But beyond the specifics of this case is the debate over how defendants are sentenced. The complex federal sentencing guidelines were established in 1987 by a commission created by Congress to reduce disparities in sentences for defendants with similar criminal records who commit similar crimes. Since then, Congress has also passed additional laws establishing tough minimum sentences for particular crimes. Judges are allowed to go outside the guidelines in unusual cases, but many judges complain that too often inflexible rules prevent them from evaluating cases on their merit.
JUDGE TERRY HATTER, JR., U.S. District Court, Los Angeles: I'm frustrated. I know my colleagues are frustrated too, because one of the reasons for these so-called guidelines, and I will always refer to them as so-called, is that they're not guidelines, they're mandates and they effectively take away our discretion entirely.
JEFFREY KAYE: Los Angeles District Court Judge Terry Hatter says an example he has had to sentence small-time drug dealers to life in prison because they had prior convictions, but when major narcotics traffickers came before him, under the guidelines, he was forced to give lighter sentences because those defendants had no criminal records.
JUDGE TERRY HATTER, JR.: If I could not give them the maximum, what kind of a message does that send? So there's frustration at the top and at the bottom with these so-called guidelines.
JEFFREY KAYE: And so with these big-time drug dealers, you were forced to give them a sentence that was no higher than someone who might be dealing a smaller amount?
JUDGE TERRY HATTER, JR.: Far less, as a matter of fact.
JEFFREY KAYE: The Koon and Powell case is being closely watched by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, the independent agency which formulated the guidelines for Congress and which regularly makes modifications with congressional approval. The commission's general counsel, John Steer, told reporter Allison Aubrey that the guidelines are doing what Congress intended, and that is to impose greater uniformity in sentencing.
JOHN STEER, U.S. Sentencing Commission: I think it's fair to say that Congress likes the concept of a tough guideline system, an appropriately tough guideline system, and one in which judges sentence within the guidelines a high percentage of the time. I think there would be some concern, though, about increased disparity if the court rules that–you know, for the defendants in this case, and rules very broadly.
JEFFREY KAYE: A broad ruling for the defendants would allow judges to impose lighter or heavier prison sentences as they wish. If the Justices rule for the government, the former police officers will be back in court for re-sentencing.