Corey Ladd was 27 years old when the car he was traveling in was pulled over by a New Orleans police officer for a broken brake light. During the ensuing inevitable search, cops found a half ounce of marijuana tucked into the waistband of his pants.
These days, someone in Ladd’s position would receive an $80 fine.
As more states move to legalize marijuana, states where cannabis is still illegal are moving to punish nonviolent marijuana possession with civil penalties akin to a traffic ticket.
But Ladd was arrested in 2011—and he had prior convictions for LSD and hydrocodone possession on his record.
All of Ladd’s charges were for possession, and he had no violent crimes on his record. But three drug charges in his lifetime meant prosecutors could pursue charges that would send Ladd to prison for 40 years—and they did, winning a conviction under laws meant to punish “habitual offenders.”
Apparently in a giving mood, the judge in his case went for leniency and sentenced Ladd to a mere 17 years in prison.
Almost immediately, Ladd appealed his case, which drew national attention from drug-reform and civil-liberties circles for its cartoonish, police state-worthy punishment. Louisiana is notorious for stiff penalties, but undeniably harsher crimes have received lighter punishment.
By comparison, a former NFL star who pleaded guilty to drugging and raping 16 women was sentenced by a New Orleans court to “only” 18 years in prison. And the man convicted of murdering a former New Orleans Saints player after a road-rage incident received 25 years.
A bag of weed is not a serial rapist, and having weed on your person isn’t generally considered to be in the same league as killing someone. But logic is not why, five years into his term, Ladd had his sentence reduced to probation on Friday and was expected to be reunited with his family, including a five-year-old daughter born after his arrest, as early as this week.
As the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported, Ladd owes most of his early release to Louisiana’s recent criminal justice reforms.
The state is still absolutely terrible on marijuana policy—possession of more than 2.5 pounds and sale of any amount of cannabis trigger mandatory minimum sentences of two and five years, respectively, according to NORML—but possession can now be punished by a fine only.
But even that wouldn’t have been enough had the Orleans Parish District Attorney not agreed to vacate the habitual-offender conviction. Only then would mandatory minimums not apply, and only then could the judge in the case “free” Ladd to serve probation.
And prosecutors tried hard to keep Ladd behind bars.
During a January hearing at an appeals court, prosecutors called Ladd a “drug dealer” of the type who poses a threat to “young children.”
Appeals court judges delivered prosecutors a stinging rebuke.
“Louisiana has some of the harshest sentencing statutes in these United States. Yet, this state also has one of the highest rates of incarceration, crime rate and recidivism,” the judges on the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeal wrote in their ruling, according to the Times-Picayune. “It would appear that the purpose of the habitual offender statutes to deter crime is not working and the state’s finances are being drained by the excessive incarcerations, particularly those for nonviolent crimes.”
But even then, the state wouldn’t give up.
Prosecutors tried to appeal the case to the state Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case. Finally admitting defeat, Orleans Parish D.A. Leon Cannizzaro agreed to drop the habitual-offender enhancement, allowing Ladd to serve the rest of his sentence on probation.
That’s nice, but keep in mind how easy it is to violate probation—meaning Corey Ladd will have spent a decade either in state custody or under its watchful eye for possessing marijuana, all thanks to mandatory minimum sentences, of the very kind favored by current criminal justice authorities like Attorney General Jeff Sessions and his fellow travelers.
This case is a succinct summation of why mandatory minimums for drug possession are ludicrous and good for little aside from swelling prison populations.