A federal criminal trial in Rome, Georgia continues today. It’s an interesting case involving a local businessman (Mario Armas) who is accused of funding a multi-million dollar drug smuggling operation. He is charged with violating federal drug laws, and also of being involved in a Continuing Criminal Enterprise. He is looking at 20 years minimum if convicted. Read the indictment filed in the federal district court in Rome.
The trial is expected to last over a week. The government witnesses will include Armas’ former business partner (an admitted drug smuggler) and two professional rodeo workers who allegedly transported truckloads of cash and drugs. According to the federal indictment, over 2,000 pounds of marijuana was distributed in Georgia through this conspiracy. And millions of dollars in cash changed hands, including over $1 million as ransom for a kidnapped associate. The case is covered in the Macon, Georgia Telegraph, and in the Rome News-Tribune.
Although the facts of this case are somewhat unusual, there is nothing unusual about the U.S. Attorney’s Office using drug dealers as snitches at trial. I have tried over a dozen federal drug trials in the last few years and have seen it happen many times. Sometimes it’s successful, and sometimes not. It usually depends on how credible the snitch is, and how many snitches the government calls to testify. Considering the severity of the federal statutes and sentencing guidelines, there is an incredibly strong motivation to become a government witness. The only way to avoid the mandatory minimum sentences in federal drug cases is to either cooperate and give the government “substantial assistance” in a criminal investigation, or qualify for “safety valve” treatment as a first-time drug offender. Even under the safety valve, a person only gets credit if they agree to tell the government everything about their offense, and that assumes the government believes their story. So, the only real way to significantly reduce a federal drug sentence is to testify and get the coveted 5K2.1 motion. That allows the court to give a much lower sentence than either the sentencing guidelines or the statutes ordinarily require. But there are no guarantees. Once you roll over, you’re at the government’s mercy.
We’ll see if these witnesses end up better off than Mr. Armas as a result of their guilty pleas.