Marijuana Backpackers in Arizona Getting Reduced Sentences Under New Policy by Federal Prosecutors

People caught near the U.S.-Mexico border with backpacks bulging with marijuana are eligible for reduced sentences under a new policy by the Arizona U.S. Attorney's Office.

"Backpackers" with no prior history of drug offenses and no extenuating circumstances, like also packing a firearm, are receiving plea deals that reduce the initial charge to a misdemeanor with a sentence of 180 days behind bars, according to a letter from the office obtained by New Times. The amount of pot in the backpack apparently doesn't matter.

Such cases are common, the letter stated, occurring as often as 30 times a day.

The new policy began on April 18, says the April 17 letter by Shelley Clemens, chief assistant U.S. Attorney for the office's Tucson district. Clemens sent the letter by e-mail to Heather Williams, a federal public defender; it was subsequently forwarded to New Times from an anonymous source.

A typical sentence for such backpackers apparently would be 13 months and a day in prison, Clemens letter states.

Bill Solomon, spokesperson for acting Arizona U.S. Attorney Ann Birmingham Scheel, says his office declines to comment on any specific policies, and would not elaborate on the letter's content.

Clemens' letter starts by explaining that the new policy is due to "current resource issues" in the office and is expected to be temporary. A review of the policy was scheduled to take place this month, "to determine if the resource issue still exists."

As mentioned, the office won't talk about it, so we can't tell you the results of that review, or even if the review ever took place.

Clemens stated that the office is "mindful" that the so-called "flip-flop" plea deals will cause more work for district court magistrates.

"We will do our best to limit the total flips each day to no more than 30," Clemens wrote. "However, there may be times, particularly on 3 day weekends and some Mondays where we go over the 30 defendant limit, and we understand those cases will be set on a date and time other than the normal flip/flop calendar."

That's a lot of backpacking going on, obviously. No wonder so many stashes of weed keep getting found in the desert of southern Arizona -- some backpackers ditch their loads if they think they're about to get caught.

Ironically, about two years ago the U.S. Attorney's Office was touting an increase in prosecutor resources that allowed it to go after more cases in which weed smugglers possessed less than 500 pounds.

Tough times for the U.S. Attorney's Office, however, seems to mean an easier go of it for certain criminal defendants.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.
Contact: Ray Stern