The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday ruled that controversial pressure tactics used by San Francisco federal prosecutors against drug defendants were legal.
The ruling was a victory for former Northern District of California U.S. Attorney Joseph Russoniello, whose office’s handling of a 2009 drug case was at issue, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. Russoniello had advocated a get-tough plea bargain strategy.
The prosecutors in the case told two accused drug dealers they would face longer prison sentences if they didn’t cooperate by pleading guilty and testifying against other defendants,.
Russoniello, who was appointed in the George W. Bush administration, served as U.S. Attorney from January 2008 to August 2010. He was succeeded by an appointee of President Barack Obama, Melinda Haag.
Haag declined to comment to the Chronicle. But Federal Public Defender Barry Portman told the paper that Haag’s office has not continued Russoniello’s policy, though it now has the option to do so because of the new ruling.
In coming to the decision, the Ninth Circuit overturned a 2009 ruling by U.S. District Judge Marilyn Hall Patel. Patel decided that Russoniello’s team acted illegally when they filed new charges against two alleged crack cocaine dealers — increasing their minimum prison term to 20 years — because the dealers wouldn’t provide prosecutors with specific names.
Defendants Wicket Morris and Stephanie Jones eventually testified against murder defendant Dennis Cyrus. Cyrus was convicted in May 2009 and sentenced to life without parole.
“That’s what induces people in the business of committing crimes to cooperate,” Russoniello told the Chronicle.