Danny Rodriguez’s first sentence, occurring in 1994 at the age of 20, was eventually deemed unconstitutional, but not before robbing him of 12 more years in prison than it should have. Rather than receiving a maximum ten years for the charge, he served 22. After over two decades in prison, Rodriguez was released and became embroiled in a contraband distribution ring, sending items like synthetic cannabis to prisoners across the country.
In 2017, his actions landed him in federal prison, where he received a 33 year sentence. Rodriguez told High Times in March that he didn’t think he could get in trouble for an over-the-counter synthetic cannabis. He claimed never to have imagined that he “Would receive a 33-year sentence for something that the Bureau of Prisons gives prisoners 30 days confinement.”
Like the 1994 case, they feel the system has delivered him another harsh sentence, noting that other ring members have not faced the same consequences.
While fighting for his freedom, the now-50-year-old Rodriguez is housed at USP Lee in Virginia with a release date of May 4, 2046. At USP Lee, a high-security prison, Rodriguez has seen his health deteriorate due to the COVID-19 pandemic. All the while, his family lives states away in Florida, struggling with their own health matters. The family, which includes father Fernando, mother Gloria and his wife Yanina Cheij, hopes they can reunite before anyone’s health worsens.
Hard To Say Goodbye
Growing up in the Miami area, Rodriguez had his run-ins with the law. By 1994, Danny Rodriguez’s criminal record prevented him from possessing a firearm. That year, he’d be arrested and charged on four counts, including two counts of being a felon in possession of a firearm. Initially charged by the state, federal authorities picked up the case three years later.
Ultimately, he’d be found guilty of the two felon in possession of a firearm charges. Deputy clerks cited the armed career criminal act as grounds to enhance the sentence from 10 years to 22. His legal team contested that his three years in the state system should count for time served, but that did not happen.
Years of court petitions seeking the acquittal or reset of the sentence ensued. In 2016, Rodriguez’s legal team would win out. Citing the 2015 Johnson v. United States decision, which, in part, contested the vaugeness of criminal statutes, Rodriguez’s 272 month sentence was amended to 120 months with the three years of state time served counting. In 2016, Rodriguez was released after over-serving the sentence by 12 years.
Post-release he opened a cleaning service in the Miami area. Still, Rodriguez said he felt indebted to his fellow inmates, who he’d formed a community with over two decades in prison. That feeling led him to working in a contraband distribution ring, during his supervised release, sending synthetic cannabis and other items to inmates. Rodriguez claims he never made money from the endeavor.
Likening fellow inmates to war buddies, Rodriguez said, “It’s very difficult to serve 20 years in prison, create a bond … and then just go home and say that part of my life never existed.”
The group planned to use sheets of paper soaked in synthetic THC, but authorities thwarted the operation before reaching any prisoners. Higher-ups in the organization were alleged to have provided evidence to the Feds in exchange for a lesser sentence. Rodriguez and his lawyers thought they could fight the case, believing synthetic cannabis did not fall under The Federal Analogue Act. But, instead of fighting the case, Rodriguez claims his legal team compelled him into pleading guilty with the belief he’d come home rather than go to prison. Ultimately, he was sentenced to 33 years in federal prison for synthetic cannabis and money laundering.
A Family Fights For Freedom Again
Rodriguez’s family and advocates have rallied around him, calling for his release once again.
Efforts included a letter to then-President Trump written by Rodriguez’s mom. In the letter, she implored Trump to consider the disparity of the sentence, with Rodriguez receiving several decades while co-conspirators received probation.
“For God’s sake, pedophiles, criminal-illegals, rapists, murderers, even terrorists are given far lesser sentences for truly egregious crimes,” she wrote.
Efforts attracted the attention of prison rights advocate and former non-violent cannabis prisoner Weldon Angelos. Since gaining his release in May 2016 for non-violent cannabis charges, Angelos has fought for individuals like Rodriguez. The passion of Danny’s advocates and family resonated with Angelos, who started seeing social media posts about the case in 2021.
“I started looking into this, like ‘What’s this 33-year sentence for fake weed,'” Angelos recalled.
His organization, The Weldon Project, took up Rodriguez’s case as part of its Mission Green initiative, aimed at releasing prisoners and creating pathways for record expungements and pardons. He agrees that a sentencing disparity has occurred.
“Even if the co-defendants cooperated, the sentence disparity cannot be that large, especially when considering they were bigger players,” said Angelos.
As the fight for Rodriguez’s freedom rages on once again, the family must contend with their various health issues. The pandemic took a toll on Danny, with him moved twice in March 2021 to an outside medical facility for treatment. At the same time, Gloria’s health has put her in and out of emergency care in recent months. Fernando advocates for his son’s release while tending to his wife’s bedside.
While incarcerated, Angelos had his father pass away. He likened the experience to the Rodriguez family, citing concern for Fernando’s tenacious dedication.
“I talk to his dad frequently, and he does nothing but work on his son’s case,” reported Angelos. Rodriguez hopes to be moved to a lower-security prison closer to Florida in the coming months.
Angelos said the family and his organization are putting forth a package for President Biden to advocate for Rodriguez’s case and others like him. In the meantime, the public can take action by signing up for Rodriguez’s Change.org petition calling for his early release.
Angelos implores lawmakers and others to look beyond the case. “No one’s claiming Danny is a candy striper,” he said, adding, “We’re saying the sentence is so out of whack,” considering his current and past legal circumstances.
Awaiting any new developments in his case, Rodriguez finds himself with many thoughts, ranging from his family’s health to the idea of equal justice. One prevailing belief is that equal justice for all is a lost ideal.
“Equal justice evades our justice system,” said Rodriguez.