A crew of convicted Florida drug smugglers, a Virginia judge who set some of them free and a Tennessee representative outraged by that judicial action were the subjects last week of a congressional hearing on drug laws and a high-profile campaign appearance for Virginia's attorney general, J. Marshall Coleman.
"Illegal drug trafficking and the problems associated with it have hit Virginia with full force," said Coleman, the Republican nominee for governor, who took time off from campaign barbecues to testify before a House committee and a battery of television cameras. "Virginia needs your help."
Coleman was one of four witnesses from as many states who told the Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control that local law enforecement officials are losing the war against drug smuggling. They placed much of the blame for that failing effort on lenient federal laws and inadequate bails.
"Terms of three to five years for drug trafficking are worth the risk when the money stakes are so high," said Jim Smith, Florida's attorney general, who said his state has the country's most severe drug smuggling problem.
The impetus for the hearing was a controversial ruling recently by Virginia Circuit Court Judge John R. Snoddy Jr. to free three men convicted in the biggest drug smuggling case in Virginia history. Rep. Robin L. Beard, a Republican from Tennessee, called the early release "the most blatant example of judicial leniency" he had seen in a major drug case.
"I am appalled by (the) obvious abuses of judicial discretion," Beard said in opening last week's hearing.
According to a National Law Journal study released earlier this year, huge disparities exist from state to state in the length of time served in prison for the same offenses. In the case of drug violation laws, according to witnesses at the hearing last week, those differences can scare drug smugglers away from some states, while attracting them to others.
In Florida, where 40 percent of all recreational drugs enter the United States, according to Drug Enforcement Administration estimates, the legislature recently passed one of the strictest anti-smuggling laws in the country. As a result, Smith said, some smugglers have begun looking for other ports of entry.
"Since the state of Florida has implemented effective drug enforcement measures, we are seeing a rapid increase in illegal drug traffic further up the coast," confirmed Coleman.
Two weeks ago, Coleman said, Virginia state police seized 15,000 pounds of marijuana in a farmhouse near the James River. Last December, a Panamanian vessel with about 20 tons of marijuana aboard ran aground at the mouth of the York River. In 1978, five men were convicted of bringing 13,000 pounds of marijuana and $1.7 million is cash ashore at the James River.
It was that 1978 case, master minded by two Florida men, according to police, that resulted in the flap between Judge Snoddy, Coleman and Representative Beard. The five men involved in the incident all pleaded guilty and received stiff sentences ranging from 10 to 25 years from Judge Snoddy. But last month it was learned that Snoddy had freed three of the convicts after they had served sentences of five, six and 13 months.
Coleman angrily charged that a "secret system of justice" had led to the releases. He petitioned the Virginia Supreme Court, arguing that only the parole board, and not Snoddy, has the right to reduce sentences. The case is scheduled to be heard by the court this week.
Snoddy, who was not represented at last week's hearing, has remained silent on the case. But his supporters argue that judicial orders freeing prisoners are common practice in southside Virginia.