Kedrick Starr had been clean and sober for 335 days when a judge in January sentenced him to a rider term in prison. He’d spent 90 days at an inpatient drug rehabilitation facility where the staff made him a mentor to others in the program, he had a job working construction back in the Treasure Valley, and he hadn’t been arrested again. The presentence report in his case recommended he receive probation. Many first-time, nonviolent drug offenders receive such sentences.
But Starr, 27, had taken a plea deal from the Ada County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. He agreed to plead guilty to possession of a controlled substance, and the prosecutor agreed to ask the judge sentence Starr to the rider term — a term he’s still serving at Idaho’s Correctional Alternative Placement in Kuna. He’s been there over 90 days, lost his construction job, and Soni Starr, his mother, estimates that by the time he’s done — factoring in the time he spent in the Ada County Jail before sentencing — he’ll have spent a year or more incarcerated.
Accepting such a plea deal in cases like Kedrick Starr’s might seem strange to defense attorneys who don’t practice in Idaho. But when police arrested Kedrick Starr in January 2018, they found he had slightly more than 2 grams of heroin on his person — which meant, under Idaho’s drug trafficking laws, he would spend a mandatory minimum three-year sentence if convicted, though he’d never been arrested before and had never been accused of selling drugs to anyone before either.
Across the country, prosecutors decide what to charge a defendant with in a criminal case. And in Kedrick Starr’s case, prosecutors threatened to charge him with drug trafficking if he didn’t plead guilty to the possession charge.
“It’s all about the weight,” Soni Starr remembers a prosecutor saying the first time she arrived in court, referencing the amount of heroin her son had on him.
She doesn’t call what happened to Kedrick Starr a plea agreement. She calls it extortion.
32 prescriptions, four years, 3,600 pills
Things looked good for Kedrick Starr when he graduated high school in Meridian in 2009. He’d been recruited to play football at Eastern Oregon University in La Grande. He studied sociology there and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in the field. He had a redshirt year but became a starting kickoff and punt returner for the school’s football team, which is one of the most physically punishing positions a football player can fill.
And Kedrick Starr felt it. Over the course of his college career, he sustained a number of smaller injuries which, while not keeping him off the field permanently, required he receive medical treatment. That’s how he got addicted to opioids.
“Kedrick had legitimate medical issues he was dealing with where he was not asking for pain medications, but they were being given to him anyway,” Elisa Massoth, his defense attorney, told the Idaho Press.
Back then Soni Starr remembers, doctors still didn’t have an effective red-flag system in place to keep from prescribing patients dangerous amounts of addictive painkillers. In Kedrick Starr’s four-year football career, he received 32 prescriptions to opioids — or, as Soni Starr estimated, 3,600 pills.
By the time he graduated college, he was addicted.
After college, Kedrick Starr got a job driving for Uber, Soni Starr remembers. He didn’t have prescriptions for pills anymore, though, nor was he playing football.
“That’s when he turned to heroin,” Massoth said. “He never had large quantities. He was buying it in $20 and $40 quantities.”
Heroin users also use other drugs to help stave off the agony of withdrawal, Massoth said. It’s why, one day in February 2018 when Kedrick Starr was visiting Idaho for a skiing trip, he had more than just heroin in his car. He had other drugs, as well, but not because he was trafficking them, Massoth said — the drugs he had in his possession were consistent with the array of other substances people addicted to opioids use to keep themselves from getting sick from withdrawal.
“You could interview every single heroin addict, and they would all say they would do anything to avoid getting sick,” Massoth said.
A police officer found him asleep in his car in a parking lot. His arrest came not long after that, when the officer found the drugs. Initially, Soni Starr said, he was charged with three felony counts of possession of a controlled substance, a misdemeanor drug paraphernalia charge, and a misdemeanor possession of marijuana charge.
Soni Starr emailed Massoth, whom she’d known before, and said the family was going to need her help. Massoth’s early advice was brutal — they needed to leave Kedrick Starr in jail so he could withdraw from opioids. Regardless of how upset or angry he became, they needed to let him get clean first. It took 63 days, and during that time Kedrick Starr tried to get one of his friends to bail him out instead, but ultimately, it worked.
Negotiating the charge
Meanwhile, the case’s prosecutor kept the drug trafficking charge on the table. Kedrick Starr had been caught with a little more than 2 grams of heroin, but it was enough.
Massoth knew the news wasn’t good.
“As a defense attorney, your heart sinks because you know they’re facing a fixed amount of time,” she said.
Soni Starr and Massoth said they gathered all of Kedrick Starr’s medical records from his football days, documenting the opioid prescriptions he’d been given. They pulled his financial records to show the amount of money he’d had at his disposal to help prove he was not a rich drug trafficker. After he weathered the withdrawal period in jail, and his family paid his bond, Soni Starr found her son a 90-day inpatient drug rehabilitation program in Oregon. After that, he completed a six-month outpatient program.
Massoth urged the prosecutor to consider not charging Kedrick Starr with drug trafficking.
“In Ada County in particular, the prosecutor’s office has a policy of not reducing trafficking cases,” she said.
Bethany Calley, public information officer for the Ada County Prosecutor’s Office, said prosecutors consider multiple factors in every case.
“Our office reviews all facts provided and consults with appropriate law enforcement officers in order to assess each case and consider all options for future action,” Calley wrote in an email to the Idaho Press.
Ada County Deputy Prosecutor Scott Bandy said the same thing in an interview with the Idaho Press.
“We look at every case on a case-by-case basis,” he said. “We look at aggravation and mitigation,” in determining a plea agreement.
Massoth said she analyzed the legality of the traffic stop that led to Kedrick Starr’s arrest, and she scanned the report of the search during which officers found the drugs. She was looking for anything unconstitutional that would make the evidence inadmissible, but she didn’t find it.
The problem wasn’t the arrest — Soni Starr credits the arrest with saving her son’s life. The problem was the fact that the prosecutor wanted to charge Kedrick Starr with drug trafficking, and he would face a set three years in the custody of the Idaho Department of Correction if convicted.
“All of the power has been placed, in the statute, in one person’s hands,” Massoth said.
The reason prosecutors threaten people like Kedrick Starr with charges carrying mandatory minimum sentences is so they can maintain that power in a case, Massoth said.
“It’s their arm twist from the very beginning,” Massoth said.
Bandy, though, said prosecutors can’t charge a person with a crime they haven’t committed. Prosecutors usually charge someone with a more serious charge, then negotiate from there. But even if prosecutors caused every trafficking defendant to go to prison for the mandatory minimum sentence, they’d still be within the law, he said, because that’s the way the statute is written.
Bargaining is part of the process in any case, he said.
“Drug trafficking, because it does have that mandatory minimum, it is effective in kind of overcoming the reluctance to be cooperative I guess,” he said.
Prior to sentencing, Kedrick Starr met with a presentence investigator, whose job it was to look at his life and his case and present the judge with an impartial picture of the situation. The presentence investigator can also recommend a sentence.
In Kedrick Starr’s case, that person recommended probation.
Kedrick Starr was successful at the Oregon inpatient program, Massoth said. He did so well the staff let him mentor others, even as his criminal case progressed in Idaho’s 4th District Court.
“He was clean for a year, and I was still begging the prosecutor to come off of trafficking,” Massoth said.
Eventually, the case’s prosecutor did agree to lower the drug trafficking charge. If Kedrick Starr would plead guilty to possession of a controlled substance and accept a rider term in prison, he could avoid the mandatory three years the trafficking charge would bring.
Yet, because Kedrick Starr pleaded guilty to a possession charge instead of drug trafficking, 4th District Court Judge Jason Scott still had discretion. On Jan. 11, Scott sentenced Kedrick Starr to the rider term.
“(Kendrick Starr) was held hostage by mandatory minimums, and the court was held hostage by mandatory minimums because one person holds all the power,” Massoth said.
At the Capitol
Cases such as Kedrick Starr’s aren’t unheard of in Idaho.
“It’s not unique,” Massoth said. “That’s the sad thing — it is not unique.”
She added, “Kedrick was lucky because he was only at 2 grams — we have users falling under that 10-year mandatory minimum.”
About a month-and-a-half after her son left for prison, Soni Starr stood in a packed hearing room at the Idaho State Capitol, where she was one of multiple people who spoke to the Idaho House Judiciary, Rules and Administration Committee. She was there to testify in favor of House Bill 99, introduced by Rep. Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, which would strike the word “mandatory” from the state’s drug trafficking statutes — thus giving judges the power to deviate from the suggested sentence if that sentence would create a “manifold injustice.”
“I have a 27-year-old son, his name is Kedrick,” she told the committee of lawmakers. “I want you to know his name.”
Prior to that hearing, Soni Starr had emailed Sen. Todd Lakey, R-Nampa, who serves as the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. If Rubel’s bill was going to become law, it would have to survive a hearing in the committee Lakey chairs.
“Thank you for your email,” Lakey wrote Feb. 20 in a return email to Soni Starr. “To clarify — I am not willing to have a hearing on the proposed legislation that removes the mandatory minimums. I am willing and will be printing a bill that will do what I described — increase the heroin quantity and reduce the time frame. However, the legislators in the House proposing repeal do not support such a compromise.”
In a second email message to her, he wrote, “One more clarification if I might. We held a hearing last year and I have listened to and considered the perspective of many folks on the various sides on this issue inside and outside of the hearing process. I am most persuaded by the perspective of our law enforcement officers that deal with this issue on the street when evaluating the risks and benefits here. Disagreeing does not mean that I didn’t consider what you had to say.”
Lakey told the Idaho Press that while he didn’t specifically remember corresponding with Soni Starr, he was familiar with Kedrick Starr’s case, the charges he pleaded guilty to, and the multiple types of drugs in Kedrick Starr’s possession at the time of the arrest. Both he and Bandy remember the testimony of people to the legislature in February who said their family members have been hurt by mandatory minimum laws, but, as Bandy pointed out, those in favor of the law researched those individual cases and “we came back and provided the legislature with an actual account of what happened,” Bandy said.
Lakey believes the laws serve as a powerful deterrent, and the smaller risk to the individual of going to prison was “not worth the cost of removing those mandatory minimums from the statute.”
“We know fewer drug deals are done in Idaho because we have mandatory minimums, and we know drug prices are higher in Idaho because we have mandatory minimums,” Lakey told the Idaho Press.
He cited conversations drug dealers have had with undercover officers, in which they expressed fear of trafficking drugs in Idaho. He pointed out in Idaho a point of some illegal drugs — meaning a 10th of a gram — costs between $30 and $40, while in Salt Lake City — the capital of a state that no longer has mandatory minimum drug laws — a point might cost between $10 and $15.
Lakey said the threat of prosecutors using mandatory minimum sentences as leverage isn’t much different from other criminal cases in which prosecutors and defense attorneys negotiate a plea bargain, and likened it to someone bargaining down on a drunk driving charge even though they may have had a certain blood-alcohol-content level.
At the committee hearing in the House, Rubel mentioned cases like Kedrick Starr’s. She spoke about how sometimes, people are so afraid of a mandatory minimum sentence, they don’t even take their case to trial. Included in the packet she handed out to committee members was a letter from Sarah Rankin-Rodriguez, who was facing a marijuana trafficking charge after police and prosecutors said she contributed to a trafficking scheme by driving her husband to a set location.
She, however, didn’t even know her husband was involved with drugs at all and, as she wrote, she was “charged by virtue of being in the same car.”
She faced a mandatory minimum five years in custody of the Idaho Department of Correction if convicted.
“While I wanted to contest my guilt outright, given the severity of the mandatory sentence and the knowledge that a judge would have no ability to weigh in on a sentence if I did not prevail at trial, I felt pressured into taking the deal in order to ... avoid the five year minimum,” she wrote.
On March 4, the bill to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for drug trafficking offenses passed the House with a 48-21 vote. Lakey, however, reiterated his opposition to allowing the bill a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee and instead introduced a bill of his own. That bill, Senate Bill 1161, would increase the amount of heroin needed to trigger a mandatory minimum sentence and add a special section dedicated to trafficking in fentanyl; but it would also leave mandatory minimum sentences in place for drug trafficking offenses. Lakey’s bill would move the threshold that triggers a mandatory minimum sentence from 2 grams of heroin to 5, although he told the Idaho Press he’s heard from police that if a person is in possession of 2 grams of heroin, they are probably also dealing drugs.
Had that bill been law at the time of Kedrick Starr’s arrest, a prosecutor could never have threatened him with a mandatory minimum three years in custody of the Idaho Department of Correction.
Bandy said he feels that bill is a necessary change.
“I think we have evolved since the beginning of the heroin epidemic and that people are getting more tolerant (to heroin),” he said.
Lakey said he’s been “trying to work on compromise,” with those who want to strike the word “mandatory” from the statute, but added those on the other side haven’t been willing to yield ground.
Still, Soni Starr was supportive of Rubel’s bill. She knows she can’t do anything to ease her son’s sentence — Kedrick Starr will have to complete the rider term, go before a judge, and leave the prison system that way.
All she wants to do is help people who might be in a similar situation as her son, she said.
“Please ask me questions,” she told the House committee in February.
The committee’s chairman, Thomas Dayley, R-Boise, thanked her for her testimony, but no one asked her anything.