Jacobia Grimes stands accused of stealing $31 worth of candy.
Authorities think he pocketed the sweets from a Louisiana store in December, according to the Advocate, a newspaper in Baton Rogue.
For the alleged theft, the Advocate reported, Grimes could face a possible prison sentence of 20 years to life.
The Orleans Parish district attorney says he doesn’t plan on pursuing the lengthy term, but Grimes’s case has still garnered national attention, standing as an example of the state’s tough sentencing laws.
“Honestly, I thought that he must have been mistaken and heard something wrong in court, until I took the case and looked at it,” one of Grimes’s attorneys, Michael Kennedy, told The Washington Post. “I was convinced that he was just exaggerating or had misunderstood. But, no — that’s actually what was happening.”
Here’s the basic gist of what happened, according to Kennedy: The theft could have been considered a misdemeanor, which would have been punishable with, at most, a stint in a parish prison. But prosecutors used what’s called an enhancement, Kennedy said, and the misdemeanor was bumped up to a felony offense.
Then there’s Louisiana’s habitual-offender law to consider, and the situation gets even more complicated. Grimes has previous convictions on his record, and under state law, he would be considered what’s called a “quad” offender; as such, he would be subject to the strict sentencing.
If Grimes is found guilty of this crime and the state were to file something called a multiple bill — which, again, is a scenario the district attorney dismissed this week — there would be another court proceeding, which would essentially determine whether Grimes is the same person who committed each crime. If that was proven to be true, then the judge would have no discretion to sentence Grimes to anything less than 20 years.
“He’s nervous; he’s rightfully nervous,” Kennedy said of his client. “He and his family call almost daily and they’re just stressed out. The idea that he could go away for that long is just mind-blowing to them and to us.”
The prior convictions on Grimes’s record were for charges fairly similar to what he is facing now, according to his lawyers.
“We’re not talking about violent crimes here,” attorney Miles Swanson said.
“Or even large-scale theft,” Kennedy said. “This isn’t a Bling Ring situation.”
Grimes — who is also facing a drug charge, in addition to theft of goods — appeared before Criminal District Court Judge Franz Zibilich last week and entered a plea of not guilty, the Advocate reported. He is expected back in court next week.
“Isn’t this a little over the top?” Zibilich wondered aloud over the threat of a “multiple bill,” an approach that leaves little discretion to a judge.
“It’s not even funny,” the judge said. “Twenty years to life for a Snickers bar, or two or three or four.”
But on Tuesday, Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro told the New Orleans Times-Picayune that he had no intention to file the multiple bill.
“I’m a little disturbed that the judge wants to make light of it,” Cannizzaro told the newspaper. “He says, ‘You guys are going to put him in jail for 20 to life?’ There was never a threat to multiple bill this guy. And if we wanted to multiple bill him, we could have done it before.”
Christopher Bowman, a spokesman for the district attorney’s office, did not return telephone messages from The Post.
“He is, essentially, standing on the cliff,” Cannizzaro told the Times-Picayune. “Sure, he could go to jail for 20 to life. And if we were to do something like that, then we’re going to be criticized for imposing this draconian sentence. But heaven forbid if he goes out there and hurts somebody.
“Then the big question we’re going to be asked is, ‘Why didn’t you guys put him away when you had all these opportunities?’ Because there’s going to come a time when somebody is going to get hurt in one of these theft escapades.”
The Times-Picayune detailed Louisiana’s sentencing laws in a 2012 report, which noted that at the time, hundreds of inmates in the state were serving a life term, even though they hadn’t ever been convicted of a violent offense.
The Times-Picayune reported that among the states with similar laws, Louisiana “stands out for its unyielding treatment of nonviolent criminals.”
In Louisiana, a trio of drug convictions can trigger life without parole. Three nonviolent crimes with sentences of 12 years or more, such as the car burglaries Martin committed, also subject the defendant to automatic life without parole. Many defendants plead guilty to lesser charges rather than risk losing a trial where so much is at stake. When judges only have one choice, sentencing hearings become a mere formality.
Kennedy and Swanson said they didn’t feel like the district attorney had done anything improper in this case; enhancement and habitual-offender laws are used on a regular basis in Louisiana — this was just an extreme example. Instead, they said, the case highlighted a problem with the state’s sentencing laws.
“We’re not saying that there don’t need to be habitual-offender laws,” Kennedy said. “What we’re saying is they cannot be this rigid. There has got to be reform. Because there is no reason in this. And it does affect all of us.”