116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY - When he was the top federal prosecutor in southern Iowa, Nicholas Klinefeldt won praise for reducing the use of mandatory minimum sentences and enhancements that he argued put too many nonviolent drug offenders in prison for too long.
Now the office that Klinefeldt once led is using those tools against his 74-year-old father, Michael, who faces a mandatory prison sentence of 10 years if convicted on drug charges that were brought this month.
Michael Klinefeldt was sentenced in 2003 to a mandatory 10-year term after he was convicted of a low-level meth offense - a punishment that has been credited with helping shape his son's advocacy for what he calls a smarter, fairer approach.
He was midway through his sentence when President Barack Obama in 2009 nominated Nicholas Klinefeldt, a defense lawyer with ties to the Democratic Party, to be U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Iowa.
Nicholas Klinefeldt led the Des Moines-based office until stepping down in late 2015. During his tenure, he worked to enact Department of Justice policy changes that encouraged prosecutors to avoid triggering mandatory minimum sentences and reduce the use of sentencing enhancements for prior convictions.
Those changes were particularly impactful in Iowa, where prosecutors previously had one of the nation's highest rates of securing mandatory minimum sentences in drug cases and usually sought enhancements when they could.
During the Trump administration, the Department of Justice resumed seeking lengthy prison sentences in such cases under Attorney General Jeff Sessions. A criminal justice reform law signed by Trump in 2018 reduced but did not eliminate mandatory minimums and enhancements.
In a 2018 op-ed piece, Nicholas Klinefeldt said his experience showed that many federal drug defendants are addicts trying to support their habits by selling small amounts of drugs to other users. He noted that a conviction for intent to distribute 5 grams of methamphetamine - the weight of a nickel - triggers a five-year minimum sentence.
That's precisely the law the U.S. Attorney's Office used to charge Michael Klinefeldt in an indictment returned by a grand jury earlier this month.
Michael Klinefeldt came under scrutiny in December, when he was a passenger in a vehicle that fled from police during a traffic stop. Police say they found meth, cash and two guns in a backpack, all of which he denied knowledge of. He faces state charges of possessing a gun as a felon from that incident.
Des Moines police executed a warrant at Michael Klinefeldt's home in January. They found 29.5 grams of methamphetamine in his bedroom closet, $653 cash in his wallet, plastic zip bags and other paraphernalia - evidence consistent with what a drug trafficker would have if he also uses some of supply, an investigator said in a criminal complaint.
Polk County turned over the case to federal prosecutors, who sought the indictment and immediately requested a sentencing enhancement, citing Klinefeldt's 2003 conviction. That means he faces 10 years to life in prison if he's convicted.
Michael Klinefeldt has been temporarily jailed pending a detention hearing next week. A federal judge from outside Iowa has been assigned to handle the case to avoid conflicts of interest.
Michael Klinefeldt left prison in 2011 and was transferred to a Des Moines halfway house, where he completed his sentence in 2012. He stayed out of trouble for years while on supervised release, which a judge ended four years early in 2016 at his request so that he could apply to have his voting rights restored before the presidential election.
His attorney, Angela Campbell, noted then that Klinefeldt would not have qualified for the enhancement that extended his sentence to 10 years under reforms enacted by President Barack Obama's administration. He wasn't a leader of the conspiracy, his offense didn't involve violence, he had a minor criminal history and his offense 'was very low-level, involving just over 5 grams of methamphetamine.”
Nicholas Klinefeldt, who recently led an investigation into the botched 2020 Iowa caucuses for the state Democratic Party, declined to comment about his father's case.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office, which is headed by acting U.S. Attorney Richard Westphal, also declined to comment. President Joe Biden has not yet nominated someone to lead the office permanently.