Willie Nash was undergoing what seemed like a typical booking procedure into a Mississippi corrections facility. Little did he know that he would be subject to a harsh sentence for simply bringing a phone into jail.
Zuri Davis of Reason noted that Nash was sentenced to 12 years in prison for illegally bringing his phone in jail.
The state’s Supreme Court admitted that the proper booking procedure was probably not followed and Nash did not appear to know that his phone was illegal, but they still ruled on Thursday, January 9, 2020 that his sentence was fair.
Nash was originally booked into the Newton County Jail on a misdemeanor charge. In the process, he asked a jailer to charge his phone, allegedly unaware that possessing this item inside the jail was illegal. According to Mississippi Code Section 47-5-193, the possession of “any weapon, deadly weapon, unauthorized electronic device, contraband item, or cell phone” is a felony. Such an offense carries a prison sentence of three to 15 years.
The jailer then took the phone to a sheriff’s deputy. Nash initially denied that he owned it, but officials discovered that it was his phone using the passcode he had previously given the jailer. In one of the text exchanges the authorities uncovered, a contact asked about Nash’s location. Nash responded, “in jail.”
A jury would later find Nash guilty of possessing a cell phone in a correctional facility. At sentencing, the judge told “consider yourself fortunate.” If the court used Nash’s prior burglary convictions to put him in the category as a habitual offender, he would have received a full sentence of 15 years in prison, instead of 12.
Nash ended up appealing the lengthy sentence, which he believed was both “grossly disproportionate” and an infringement of his Eighth Amendment right against cruel and unusual punishment. He also contended that the statue’s list of prohibited items are placed in descending order of seriousness, which implicitly indicates “differing degrees of transgression” that merit different penalties.
However, the state Supreme Court decided that it could not find “under the law that the trial court abused its discretion in sentencing.”
The Court rejected the “differing degrees of transgression” argument on the premise that the statute warns against violating “any provision.” Due to how the sentence fell within the “statutory range”—with a maximum sentence of 15 years—the Court said it could not be appealed.
“While obviously harsh, Nash’s twelve-year sentence for possessing a cell phone in a correctional facility is not grossly disproportionate,” the Court concluded. The judge cited Nash’s prior convictions and acknowledged that he could have handed out the full sentence of 15 years.
Associate Justice Leslie D. King wrote in a concurring opinion that although the Court upheld case law in its decision, the case “seems to demonstrate a failure of our criminal justice system on multiple levels.”
It was “highly probable,” King stated, that the proper booking procedure was not adhered to. Further, Nash’s behavior demonstrated he did not know that his phone was illegal. He also noted that it seemed “problematic” to “allow someone into the jail with a cell phone, and then to prosecute that person for such action.”
Despite Nash’s previous convictions, King believed his history had shown a change in behavior. Nash was previously imprisoned for burglary. For nearly 10 years following his incarceration, Nash had a clean record and was able to provide for his wife and three children.
King concluded that the judge could have employed more discretion given that Nash’s crime was victimless, he did nothing “nefarious” with phone, and he gave it up willingly.
America is based on the rule of law, so it must carry out its laws accordingly.
However, it does have a pardoning process at the state level to make up for previous wrongful sentences.
Nash’s case should be kept in mind for a potential commutation or outright pardon by Mississippi’s Governor in the near future.