A Severna Park man accused of running drugs from Atlanta to Northern Virginia pleaded guilty Tuesday to a cocaine conspiracy charge that did not specify the quantity he sold — marking one of the first cases in the Washington area in which prosecutors have followed the attorney general's directive not to charge low-level drug offenders with crimes that trigger stiff mandatory minimum penalties.
Marko Bukumirovic, 33, was charged in May with conspiracy to distribute 5 kilograms or more of cocaine, which carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in prison. But in court Tuesday, Bukumirovic pleaded guilty to essentially the same charge without the 5-kilogram amount noted — an offense that has no mandatory minimum term.
On paper, the case seems to be one of the first public applications of Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.'s directive on mandatory minimum sentencing — the centerpiece of a criminal-justice reform plan that aims to save tens of millions of dollars in prison costs by reserving the most severe penalties for high-level or violent offenders and allowing minor drug criminals to re-enter society more rapidly. But practically, it is likely to have little impact on Bukumirovic's sentence, said Stephen R. Pickard, his attorney.
Bukumirovic is no longer facing the 10-year mandatory minimum: The legal maximum he now faces is 20 years instead of life in prison, Pickard said. But as a low-level, first-time offender, Bukumirovic likely would have qualified for the "safety valve" — another mechanism that allows certain offenders to avoid mandatory minimum sentences, Pickard said. And the modified charge, he said, does not affect Bukumirovic's sentencing guidelines.
"The basis of the charge has everything to do with Holder," Pickard said. "Practical point? No difference. ... Ultimately, the guidelines came out the same."
A spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office declined to comment.
Holder has advised prosecutors to continue seeking charges that carry mandatory minimum sentences against violent offenders, gang members, leaders of criminal enterprises and those with significant criminal histories.
At least outwardly, Bukumirovic seems exactly the type of drug offender the attorney general would prefer to avoid sending to prison for a decade. The native of Europe, who holds an economics degree from Towson University, said in court Tuesday that it was the first time he had sold drugs. He said he had been a recreational cocaine user and started dealing at the urging of a friend who convinced him that work and school were the "wrong way" to succeed.
Bukumirovic said in court that he had always been curious how the friend — who wore stylish clothes and expensive jewelry – obtained his wealth. When the friend mentioned that he knew some people who wanted to buy drugs, Bukumirovic said he volunteered to reach out to his own drug connection in Georgia.
The friend, though, set Bukumirovic up with undercover police officers as buyers. From about June 2010 to May 2011, Bukumirovic sold the officers several kilograms of cocaine, charging tens of thousands of dollars each time he transported the drugs from Atlanta to Northern Virginia, according to his plea.
On Tuesday, U.S. District Court Judge Leonie M. Brinkema warned Bukumirovic that he still could face deportation and that she ultimately would determine how long he spends in prison. She allowed him to remain out on bond until his Nov. 1 sentencing, although she said doing so was "fairly unusual." Federal prosecutors had not argued for his bond to be revoked.
Bukumirovic said after the hearing that he remained concerned about the possibility of facing substantial prison time because of federal sentencing guidelines.
"When they follow [the] guidelines, I'm still going to be on [the] same level," he said.