Home Moral guidelines 110-year sentence in fatal truck crash calls for change

110-year sentence in fatal truck crash calls for change

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Almost three years after the incident, the truck driven by Rogel Aguilera-Mederos continues to leave wrecks in its wake. His 110-year sentence left his policy of life and mandatory minimum sentences in tatters.

While a petition to change Aguilera-Mederos’ sentence has already garnered two million signatures online, the real dilemma is what to do about the sentencing guidelines that put him in this position in the first place. The arguments for and against mandatory minimum sentences have been the center of heated debate for decades.

It is time for the Colorado legislature to take a hard look at these policies again and make some changes. More specifically, they must return discretionary power to judges.

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The argument against such a course of action is simple: without a warrant, the sentences become arbitrary and subject to the random drawing of lots. Sentences can vary wildly depending on whether a judge is pro-defense – like the one in Rittenhouse – or a “suspended judge” guided by bodily notions of societal retribution.

At worst, judicial discretion opens the door to decisions based on prejudices and personal prejudices. Such discretion resulted in racial inequalities in sentencing as long as judges presided over courtrooms.

Yet the solution to this problem has turned out to be even more virulent. Legislative bodies depriving the judiciary and imposing mandatory sentences have had devastating consequences. Creating general guidelines to govern a system for examining individual cases for unique facts and circumstances is a recipe for disaster.

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For example, mandatory minimum sentences for crack have resulted in unacceptable racial disparities and the disproportionate incarceration of minorities for decades. It is the very illustration of the systemic and institutionalized racial disparity. Yet despite its high-profile nature and some changes, the problem persists today.

A better solution lies in better judicial selection, more rigorous and transparent judicial accountability and remedies against judges who use their discretion for unacceptable purposes. If the courts can prohibit prosecutors from engaging in such conduct, someone should be able to prohibit the courts from doing the same.

A secondary argument in favor of mandatory minimum sentences is that they promote plea negotiations and judicial efficiency. Indeed, the very possibility of facing draconian sentences allows prosecutors to push defendants to agree to plea negotiations. This saves the courts from resource-intensive litigation.

The problem here is even more glaring. This is an effective incentive for prosecutors to mount as many charges as possible and to put a heavy hand on the scales of justice to save time and money.

Of course, such tips cost freedom, the presumption of innocence and the moral foundations of impartiality, fairness and due process. The importance to justice of prosecutorial discretion is secondary to – and often equal to – judicial discretion.

This is exactly where much of the outrage in the Aguilera-Mederos case emanates: Organizations such as the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) have accused Jefferson County District Attorney Alexis King (and his predecessor Pete Weir) for overcharging in the case. They believe the potential penalties resulted in a breach of penalties related to the plea negotiations.

It sounds too simplistic. The king’s office practically joined the presiding judge in asking for a reduction. Additionally, King pointed out that several plea offers were rejected by Aguilera-Mederos, who then took a chance in front of the jury knowing what could happen.

Now that he has, the cries for total forgiveness ring a little hollow. Aguilera-Mederos is not René Lima-Marin; four people have died largely because it did not choose to mitigate the danger presented by failed brakes. Found guilty by a jury, he should serve a prison sentence.

But 110 years?

It’s more than a parody. It is an injustice. It is an indicator of a broken system. It is a call for urgent change.


Mario Nicolais is a lawyer and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the justice system, healthcare and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq


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