Drug Laws Revised, But Court Case Shows Resentencing Challenges

Man spent 6 1/2 years in prison for peddling $30 worth of heroin

By Jennifer Peltz
|  Saturday, Apr 17, 2010  |  Updated 4:45 PM EDT
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Drug Laws Revised, But Court Case Shows Resentencing Challenges

U.S. Customs and Border Patrol

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After 6 1/2 years in prison for peddling $30 worth of heroin, Robert Rodriguez had a chance at freedom.

His guilty plea to a narcotics-sale charge years ago — a sale he told authorities he made because his son needed diapers and milk — brought him a 4 1/2 to nine-year sentence.

But now the same charge could carry as little as two years since New York eased its 1970s drug laws last year.

Under the revised laws, Rodriguez applied to have his sentence shortened. In anticipation of a favorable outcome, he lined up a construction job and completed some prison anti-violence programs. Relatives anxiously filled a row of courtroom seats as they waited last Monday for a Bronx judge's decision.

His lawyer, Linda Boyd, argued that Rodriguez was the type of small-time offender the resentencing laws envisioned. His mother, Lillian Umpierre, wrote a letter saying he had "learned from his mistakes the pitfalls of the streets."

"He says to me, 'Wow, Mom, I pray to God not to abandon me and give me another chance to cherish my family while we are still here,'" she wrote in a letter to the court.

Prosecutors painted a different picture. They described Rodriguez as a persistent lawbreaker with an aggressive bent who blew a chance to avoid prison by completing a drug-treatment program. He abandoned the program within three months, they said.

Rodriguez, 29, has a criminal history that goes back more than a decade and includes guilty pleas to hitting one of his sisters with a broken bottle and burning a woman in the face with a cigarette, prosecutors said. His prison record includes disciplinary action for failing drug tests and fighting, they noted.

Rodriguez "rejected every opportunity to turn his life around," Assistant District Attorney Nikki R. Harding wrote in court papers.

Bronx Supreme Court Justice John P. Collins, too, pointed to Rodriguez's criminal record, prison discipline problems and failure in the treatment program as he turned down the inmate's bid for a shorter sentence.

Rodriguez' relatives declined to comment as they left the courtroom in tears.

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