Shawn Sheikhan hopes for probation ahead of sentencing in marijuana-distribution case

Shahram Sean Sheikhan 2022 WSOP Main Event Day 2D
Haley Hintze Author Photo
Haley Hintze
Posted on: October 27, 2023 14:47 PDT

Well-known poker player Shahram "Shawn" Sheikhan hopes to receive a favorable decision from a US District Court judge in November when sentenced in a marijuana-distribution case that, though unlikely, could result in as much as a 40-year prison sentence.

Sheikhan, 54, was indicted in June of 2022 and soon pled guilty to a single count of conspiracy to distribute marijuana. After several extensions and delays, Sheikhan will learn his fate on November 3 in a hearing before US Southern District of California Judge Cathy Ann Bencivengo.

Sheikhan and a co-defendant, Sabriana Williams, both pled guilty for operating an unlicensed and illegal cannabis-distribution business known as “Cannaland” from 2019 to 2022. Cannaland, as previously reported by PokerOrg, provided cannabis products to other unlicensed and illicit dispensaries in southern California, particularly in and around San Diego. Cannaland also served as a dispensary itself, with its own direct-to-customer business.

Cannaland's primary place of business, near San Diego, was first raided by authorities in April 2021. The raid uncovered more than 3,000 pounds of marijuana, which had an estimated street value of more than $6 million. Agents also found a shotgun and four handguns. Even though Cannaland's security personnel were licensed and trained, the detail still factored in as a possible enhancement for Sheikhan's eventual sentencing.

Though marijuana is legal in California, the Cannaland dispensary and distribution center operated at a location in San Diego County where setting up such a business was not legal, and marijuana distribution also remains illegal under federal law. The combination of factors and the size of the operation ultimately led to the charges brought against Sheikhan and Williams.

Defense counsel pleads for time served and probation

Sheikhan retained what is perhaps Las Vegas's most prestigious law firm, Chesnoff & Schonfeld, for his defense. The firm has represented A-listers in the gambling and entertainment industries, among other well-off clients, for decades. In Sheikhan's case, amid a flurry of pre-sentencing filings last week, attorney Richard A, Schonfeld argued for a downward variance in sentencing based upon multiple factors.

Sheikhan had already received a recommendation for downward variance from prosecutors, who proposed to the court that he receive an eight-year (96-month) sentence. Schonfeld, in his recent filing, argues that Sheikhan's expected downward variance should be taken all the way down to time served, plus continuing probation for several more years.

According to Schonfeld, Sheikhan should receive "a sentence of probation (and conditions of home detention, community service, counseling as deemed appropriate, and continued drug testing)." Sheikhan also agreed to forfeit $191,020 that was seized as part of the Cannaland operation. Judge Bencivengo is not bound by the either prosecutors' or defense's preferred outcomes, and she could hand down a longer sentence or levy additional fines if she chooses.

Mori Eskandani among Sheikhan's character references

Defense requests for sentencing reductions are typically accompanied by character references, and Schonfeld and Sheikhan submitted several for the court's consideration. The references came from family members and friends, the latter including a prominent obstetrician, a retired cop, and Poker Hall of Famer Mori Eskandani.

Eskandani, who shares an Irani heritage with Sheikhan, wrote, "Shawn has told me about the serious federal crime he has pled to and has expressed serious remorse. I would like to let you know that Shawn has always treated me and others with respect.

"He loves his wife Tania and his daughter [Tatijana]; I watched him on numerous occasions play tennis with her since she was in first grade and be a loving father. He also encouraged her to get a real education." Sheikhan's daughter is pursuing a law degree.

Sheikhan has also appeared on multiple televised poker shows produced by Eskandani's Poker PROductions, where "Sheiky"'s brash persona played well to the camera, just as it did in the 2005 WSOP Main Event, where he and another famed trash-talker, Mike "The Mouth" Matusow, traded verbal jabs for hours. Sheikhan finished 11th in that event, busting just before Matusow, who exited in ninth.

Relaxed societal views toward marijuana crimes

Schonfeld, in his 33-page memo, also argued that the US's increasingly relaxed attitudes toward marijuana crimes and the drug's use in general also argue for leniency in Sheikhan's case. The matter is complicated by the fact that the federal laws regarding marijuana distribution remain severe -- on a rough par with heroin -- even though those existing federal laws are widely viewed as extreme and out of touch.

Schonfeld also cited the US's broad push toward marijuana legalization, including a 2022 federal measure that passed the US House but faltered in the Senate. Schonfeld also noted US President Joe Biden's push for marijuana legalization, including his October 2022 move to pardon 6,500 individuals convicted federally for various marijuana-related offenses.

An interesting case in Washington DC also made its way into Schonfeld's memo. In US vs. Connor Pennington, et al, prosecutors charged eight defendants with marijuana-distribution crimes roughly parallel to those logged against Sheikhan and Williams. Pennington was the CEO of a startup called Joint Delivery, and the case's eight defendants were charged federally despite marijuana being legal in the District of Columbia.

As Schonfeld noted, the presiding judge derided the contradictory laws, and all eight defendants, including Pennington, were sentenced to time served, plus either two or three years of supervised release. Schonfeld argues that similar leniency also should apply in Sheikhan's circumstances.

Not quite a crystal-clean legal background for Sheikhan

Despite the rosy characterization of Sheikhan crafted by his defense, Sheikhan's background does include one significant bump. In 1995, he was convicted on a charge of misdemeanor sexual battery involving his relationship with a 17-year-old girl when he was in his early 20s. Sheikhan served nine months in prison and was on probation for five years after his release.

The case is mentioned indirectly in Schonfeld's defense memo, while also noting that because of the age of the conviction and the misdemeanor nature of the case when resolved, it is no longer factored as part of Sheikhan's pre-sentencing calculations concerning prior offenses.

The earlier case has its own lingering side story, however. In 2007, the US's federal Customs and Immigration Enforcement (ICE) agency became aware of the crime as part of a federal push to deport all non-US citizens who had been convicted of sexually-related crimes against children, which technically included Sheikhan's victim in the 1995 case.

Sheikhan was duly arrested and was originally planned by ICE officials to be detained until his deportation hearing. However, again with the help of the high-profile Chesnoff & Schonfeld firm, Sheikhan first won his release on bond, then succeeded in having the deportation case thrown out of court. The legal victory allowed Sheikhan to continue both his poker career and his primary source of income, derived from owning and operating a small number of "tattoo and smoke" parlors around Las Vegas.

Featured image source: Haley Hintze