John C. Cavett
The day federal agents had evidence of former Hamilton County Sheriff Billy Long trying to sell cocaine, they had their big stick in the case against him.
Charges of shaking down store owners, arranging for big wads of cash to be sent to Mexico and giving a gun to a convicted felon shouldn’t be among Mr. Long’s biggest worries, lawyers said.
“(Mr. Long) should be worried about the drug charge,” said defense attorney Bryan Hoss, who is not associated with the case.
Only the drug charge — possessing five or more kilograms of cocaine with intent to distribute — carries a mandatory 10-year minimum sentence. So while U.S. District Judge Harry S. “Sandy” Mattice theoretically could impose no prison time for the other charges, the 56-year-old Mr. Long still stands to spend at least a decade behind bars.
After pleading guilty May 5 to 27 of 28 counts against him — including charges of extortion, money laundering and gun and drug charges — Mr. Long’s sentencing hearing is set for Aug. 18.
Mr. Long’s attorney, Jerry Summers, is looking to an obscure aspect of the federal sentencing guidelines called the “safety valve” to mitigate the lone drug charge.
Applied only to certain drug crimes as a buffer when the accused’s behavior is not deemed severe enough to warrant the mandatory sentence, the safety valve gets rid of the mandatory rule.
The exception rarely is granted by judges, said defense attorney John C. Cavett Jr., because “most defendants in the federal system simply don’t qualify for it.”
Still, Mr. Cavett conceded, “Any lawyer worth anything at all is going to look at every case where (the safety valve) might apply and work really hard to make it apply.”
The requirement pertaining to the use of a firearm is one area where Mr. Long could run into trouble, Mr. Hoss said, since the former sheriff, as a law enforcement officer, possessed a gun while making the drug deal.
But Mr. Summers said he plans to make several arguments to convince Judge Mattice that the safety valve does apply.
“He meets four of the five requirements unequivocally,” Mr. Summers said. “We intend to argue that the gun Mr. Long carried as a police officer was never used or brandished in the course of the drug crime.”