LOS ANGELES (CNS) — A federal judge said he does not have the authority to order that one of oldest inmates in the federal prison system — a 94-year-old man serving a life sentence for overseeing a Colombia-to-Los Angeles drug trafficking operation — be released due to his age and infirmity.
“It’s completely within the discretion of the Bureau of Prisons,” U.S. District Judge Terry J. Hatter Jr. told an attorney for Carlos Tapia-Ponce on Wednesday, Jan. 13. “Either you have authority or you don’t.”
Tapia-Ponce was convicted 25 years ago in Los Angeles following a 1989 raid that resulted in the discovery of a record-breaking quantity of cocaine in a Sylmar warehouse.
Authorities said the 21.4 tons of Colombian-produced cocaine found stacked in boxes had been sitting in storage as the result of a pay dispute between Mexican smugglers and Colombian cartels and had reached unusual proportions.
The bust was the largest in the history of the United States, enough for 1.38 billion cocaine doses — five for every person in the country at the time, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Stacked properly, the 2.2 pound bricks of cocaine would have been the size of two school buses, with a street value of roughly $7 billion.
Also in the warehouse was $12 million in $100 and $20 bills, stored in boxes.
Seven people were arrested in the case, including the organization’s “patriarch,” Tapia-Ponce, who was convicted along with two others in November 1990 of conspiracy and possession with intent to distribute a controlled substance.
Hatter sentenced Tapia-Ponce to life in federal prison in 1991. There is no probation in the federal system.
“Life means life,” the judge said Wednesday.
The defendant’s attorney, Ellen Lake — Tapia-Ponce’s original defense lawyer died two years ago at age 77 — asked the judge to order her client released so he can spend whatever time he has left with family in his native Mexico.
“In all respects he’s been a model prisoner,” Lake told Hatter, explaining that Tapia-Ponce — who was not in court — was recently transferred to a BOP medical facility in North Carolina because the Georgia prison to which he was assigned could no longer handle his medical problems.
“Immediately after the transfer, he suffered a heart attack and congestive heart failure,” Lake wrote in court papers. “In light of the fact that he may not have much longer to live, Mr. Tapia-Ponce respectfully moves this court for an order reducing his sentence to time served … to allow him to return to his family in Mexico before he dies.”
She added that Tapia-Ponce has no criminal history other than the offenses for which he was convicted and, since being in prison, no disciplinary record.
“I’m quite familiar with the case — I sentenced him,” Hatter responded.
Lake told the judge that there have been two motions made to the federal prison bureau’s director requesting “compassionate release” for her client over the past few years.
The first was rejected after eight months “for reasons that are really quite spurious,” she said, while a second motion has been pending for five months.
“Five months of waiting is a long time for a 94-year-old man,” Lake told the judge.
Prosecutors in Los Angeles opposed Lake’s motion on procedural grounds, arguing in their papers that “only the director of the Bureau of Prisons may make a motion to reduce the term of imprisonment after a term of imprisonment has been imposed” and any decision — even reluctance to make a decision — “is not judicially reviewable.”
Lake, though, argued that the bureau has “abdicated” its role by waiting too long to make a decision and should not be allowed to “sit on” a finding while Tapia-Ponce nears death.
“There should be a mechanism by which the director is strongly encouraged to make a decision,” she said.
Hatter indicated Wednesday that any revisions to the original life sentence would be “completely within the discretion of the Bureau of Prisons.”
Lake, for her part, asked that Hatter request that the BOP “explain” the delay in issuing a decision.
The judge said he would look into the matter and set a hearing for Feb. 8 to discuss the matter.