Clemency Denied for South Phoenix Man Serving 16-Year Pot Sentence

A state clemency board on Tuesday declined to reduce the sentence of Trent Bouhdida, who is pictured with his son.
A state clemency board on Tuesday declined to reduce the sentence of Trent Bouhdida, who is pictured with his son. Trent Bouhdida/Tom Carlson
The Arizona Board of Executive Clemency declined to shorten the 16-year prison sentence of Trent Bouhdida, a 29-year-old man who, in 2015, sold an undercover cop an ounce of marijuana.

Bouhdida was the subject of a Phoenix New Times story on August 4 that investigated how a young Black man from South Phoenix ended up serving such a lengthy sentence for pot.

At a clemency hearing on Tuesday, board members weren't moved by the details of the case and decided the sentence was fair.

"When I first glanced at this file, I was a little bit torn, because I do think selling an ounce of marijuana is not, on its face, deserving of such a lengthy prison sentence," board chair Mina Méndez said.

The board reviews cases of people several years into prison sentences who believe their sentences should be commuted, as well as capital cases. If the board decides that a commutation is warranted, it passes a recommendation to the governor.

Then, the governor chooses whether to sign off on clemency. Governor Doug Ducey has rarely done so, even when the board has unanimously recommended clemency.

Members of the board are appointed by the governor. On Tuesday, three were present: Méndez, Louis Quiñonez, and Michael Johnson. Another board member, Salvatore Freni, was absent, and a fifth board seat has been vacant for several months.

Méndez is a former prosecutor, while Quiñonez is a former agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. Johnson is a former detective with a 21-year tenure at the Phoenix Police Department. Freni spent 30 years working for the Phoenix Police Department.

The current makeup of the board — three of the four members have lengthy law enforcement careers — has sparked legal challenges. A statutory requirement states that no two board members hail from the same profession. In April, attorneys for a death row inmate sued and argued that the board was essentially stacked with former cops.

A Maricopa County Superior Court judge dismissed the case, in part due to his view that law enforcement was not a profession.

Chance Encounter

In 2015, Bouhdida had a chance encounter with an undercover Tempe detective by a 7-Eleven across from his apartment. At the time, the cop was working on a sting operation, where officers set up a fake pawn shop and attempted to recover stolen items. Ultimately, Bouhdida sold the officer marijuana four times — adding up to a total of one ounce.

Bouhdida was convicted on four counts of sale of marijuana. He received a sentence of 11 years and three months for the sales, and another five years because he was on probation at the time. The probation stemmed from an armed robbery case when Bouhdida was 15 years old. He pleaded guilty, although he did not actually participate actively in any of the robberies in question, according to court records.

In Bouhdida's clemency petition, parts of which were read aloud on Tuesday, he said that his time at the Arizona State Prison Complex Tucson had been a "humbling experience." He also said he hoped that the board would take into account the small amount of marijuana involved in the sales.

But board members were not swayed.

"Considering his participation in violent crime with street gang affiliation, I believe his sentence was appropriate," Quiñonez said. He also noted that although Bouhdida has taken college classes and works as a GED tutor in prison, he has some disciplinary history. That includes several occasions of "disobeying a verbal/written order" and one instance of minor "criminal damage" between 2018 and 2020.

Méndez agreed with Quiñonez's assessment, noting that the board was only considering the 11-year sentence for the marijuana sales, not the five-year probation violation sentence, which was also due to the sales.

'My Brother Deserves Another Chance'

Friends and family of Bouhdida wrote letters and asked board members for mercy, which Quiñonez acknowledged helped his case. "He submitted a detailed release plan and attached many letters of support to his commutation application," Quiñonez said.

Bouhdida provided some of those letters to New Times over the weekend. He said that he was hopeful about the hearing but would continue to fight to reduce his sentence regardless of the outcome on Tuesday.

"The fact that there are three stores in a three-mile radius of my house where any citizen with identification can purchase the same product that has Trent incarcerated is ludicrous," Bouhdida's older brother, George Bouhdida, wrote in a letter to the board. "People and the state are benefiting and making a living off the exact substance that has him incarcerated.

"I just feel that my brother deserves another chance," George Bouhdida added.

A childhood friend of Bouhdida's, Matin Muhammad, also wrote a lengthy letter: "Words are inadequate to express the value of Trent to his friends, family, and community and what it would mean for him to be free."
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Katya Schwenk is a staff writer for Phoenix New Times. Originally from Burlington, Vermont, she now covers issues ranging from policing to far-right politics here in Phoenix. She has worked as a breaking news correspondent in Rabat, Morocco, for Morocco World News, a government technology reporter for Scoop News Group in Washington, D.C., and a local reporter in Vermont for VTDigger. Her freelance work has been published in Business Insider, the Intercept, and the American Prospect, among other places.
Contact: Katya Schwenk