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Delay requested in Chong term

Thursday, October 16, 2003

By Torsten Ove, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Actor and comedian Tommy Chong, who considers his stint in federal prison akin to "going on location," still would rather be someplace else.

Chong, 65, turned himself in at the Taft Correctional Institution near Bakersfield, Calif., last week to begin his nine-month sentence for selling bongs over the Internet.

But one of his lawyers appeared in federal court in Pittsburgh yesterday to argue that he should be let out of the lockup pending his appeal to the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Pittsburgh attorney Stanton Levenson told U.S. District Judge Arthur J. Schwab that his client, famous for such movies as "Up in Smoke," isn't a threat to anyone, isn't likely to run away and has legitimate reasons to believe he might win on appeal.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Mary McKeen Houghton opposed the motion to let him out, saying the nine-month sentence Schwab imposed was appropriate.

Schwab asked them both to present case law to him by Wednesday. Chong will stay put in the meantime.

To get out of prison while an appeal is pending, a defendant has to show some good reasons why the appeal might be successful.

Levenson said Schwab made several mistakes in imposing the sentence, saying he felt the judge improperly considered statements Chong gave to the news media in which he made light of the case.

After his guilty plea in May, he joked with reporters about putting what he calls "the incident" in his next movie with long-time partner Cheech Marin. In an online chat session with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in April, he also poked fun at the federal government.

When asked about a federal crackdown on drug paraphernalia, he replied, "I feel pretty bad, but it seems to be the only weapons of mass destruction they've found this year."

Levenson said he didn't think Chong should have made such comments. But he also said Chong's remarks are protected free speech under the First Amendment and argued that the judge shouldn't have considered them in handing down the sentence.

Levenson said he felt Schwab improperly took into account the possibility that Chong would capitalize on the case to make money, as the government feared.

Chong, whose entire career has been based on playing a pot-addled moron, promised not to use the case to bolster his earnings, and Levenson said he hasn't, although the Los Angeles Times reported that Chong has been telling jokes about the raid on his house in his stand-up act across the country.

Levenson appeared at a loss, however, when Schwab asked him what evidence he had that the judge considered Chong's statements in determining the sentence.

Houghton said that Chong's plea agreement called for a sentencing range of six months to a year. It's unlikely that Chong will prevail in his appeal because the 3rd Circuit judges do not often reduce or overturn a sentence that falls within the guideline range.

Chong admitted to distributing 7,500 bongs and marijuana pipes on the Internet through Nice Dreams, a family company that was named for one of his movies.

He also entered a guilty plea for the company, which did business as Chong Glass in Gardena, Calif. The corporation is now defunct.


Torsten Ove can be reached at tove@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620.

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