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Naples family felt blindsided by lengthy marijuana sentence

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Emma Behrmann : Naples Daily News


When Michelle Sanchez heard her husband's prison sentence read in court, her whole world fell apart.

"Me and my husband just looked at each other like 'How did we get here?'" she said. "I felt like everything was one bad dream."

Her husband and high school sweetheart, Steven Sanchez, 56, will spend nearly two-and-a-half years in state prison after a jury convicted him Sept. 6 for possession of more than 20 grams of cannabis, the State Attorney's Office reported.

The Naples Police Department arrested Steven June 20 after they pulled him over for speeding. Steven told the officer he had marijuana and was arrested. The officer described him as "very polite" in the arrest report.

More:'Polite' Naples man will serve 2.5 years in summer cannabis possession case An original plea deal offered Steven 10 months in jail or 33 months' probation, Michelle said. Everyone told her to get a lawyer because with a lawyer they could reduce that time. So, she hired criminal defense attorney and former Collier judge Mike Carr.

They brought Steven's case to trial, but she was unaware of Florida's scoresheet system, which Carr never explained to her, she said.

Possession of more than 20 grams of marijuana is considered a third-degree felony in Florida and is punishable by up to five years in prison, five years of supervised probation and a fine of up to $5,000. A conviction will also result in the revocation of driving privileges for six months by the Florida Department of Highway Safety Motor Vehicles.

Steven's sentence resulted from state sentencing guidelines, in which scoresheets are a factor, State Attorney's Office spokesperson Samantha Syoen said. As for Steven, he has prior criminal history in Miami-Dade County involving the trafficking and sale of marijuana, as well as having marijuana grow houses, she said.

A defendant's scoresheet is composed of sentence points based on the level of their offense, ranging on a scale of 1-10. Legal status points are assessed when any form of legal status existed at the time they committed an offense prior to court sentencing, according to Florida statute 921.0024.

Every felony offense is assigned two-point values: primary and secondary offense. The primary offense score is higher and considered the starting point. The secondary offense would be if the defendant had a second charge.

The scoresheet also considers the defendant's prior record, in which all charges are assigned a point value and added. Prior offense points are less than those for a primary or secondary offense.

Points only come off the scoresheet if a defendant goes 10 years without any criminal charges, according to the Florida Department of Corrections scoresheet manual.

Court records appear to show Steven hasn't had a criminal history in about a decade.

Steven was arrested in 2008 and 2012 for felony marijuana charges in Miami. He was found guilty of cannabis trafficking charges in 2009 and of four felonies including sale, manufacturing and trafficking of cannabis in 2013. He was sentenced to two years of probation in each case, court records show.

Since then, he's only had traffic violations, which are not criminal offenses. Michelle said they wouldn't have gone to trial if she knew about the point system; they would've taken the plea deal. But she said her lawyer never made it clear Steven could face nearly three years in prison.

"I feel like I paid to put my husband in jail for two and a half years," she said.

She described Carr as nonchalant and said he didn't argue for her husband. Carr declined to comment on the case due to attorney-client privilege.

Steven's nephew, Andy Rivero, also felt blindsided when he realized the 10-month sentence offered in the plea deal more than doubled after taking the case to court.

He was under the impression that 10 months was what Steven could face, and a trial could potentially reduce that sentence. He never expected more than two years. "We didn't know that getting a lawyer and going to court

"It doesn't matter that over a decade has gone by without him having done anything," Rivero said. "You're still a menace to society; it doesn't matter. I don't think the system is set up for people to actually get better."

Steven also had a medical marijuana card while living in California and was in the process of getting a medical card in Florida. He got his Florida card the day after a Naples police officer pulled him over, Rivero said.

But neither the fact Steven had a California medical card nor that he obtained a Florida medical card following his arrest could be presented to the jury. "We feel like you don't get the whole picture, and I think that's important when you're talking about someone's life," Rivero said. "Especially when someone's going to jail for something that people in most places in the country can do legally."

Emma Behrmann is a breaking news reporter for The Naples Daily News and News-Press. You may contact her at emma.behrmann@naplesnews.com.

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