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Supreme Court rules in drug sentencing, gun cases

[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website; JURIST news archive] handed down decisions in three cases Monday, including Kimbrough v. United States [Duke Law case backgrounder; JURIST report], where the Court overturned a federal appeals court ruling on whether a federal judge has discretion to sentence a defendant to a prison term less than what is recommended by federal guidelines when the lower sentence "is based on a disagreement with the sentencing disparity for crack and powder cocaine offenses." US District Judge Raymond A. Jackson sentenced crack and powder cocaine dealer Derrick Kimbrough to 15 years in prison, despite the 19- to 22-year standard found in the Federal Sentencing Guidelines [USSC materials]. Under the federal sentencing guidelines, one gram of crack cocaine is treated the same as 100 grams of powder cocaine, leaving crack cocaine dealers to face much harsher sentences. The US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit vacated Kimbrough's lesser sentence [opinion, PDF] and remanded for resentencing, holding that the lower than recommended sentence was per se unreasonable as it was based on the judge's disagreement with the sentencing disparity. The Supreme Court reversed, writing:

We hold that, under Booker, the cocaine Guidelines, like all other Guidelines, are advisory only, and that the Court of Appeals erred in holding the crack/powder disparity effectively mandatory. A district judge must include the Guidelines range in the array of factors warranting consideration. The judge may determine, however, that, in the particular case, a within-Guidelines sentence is "greater than necessary" to serve the objectives of sentencing. 18 U. S. C. §3553(a) (2000 ed. and Supp. V). In making that determination, the judge may consider the disparity between the Guidelines' treatment of crack and powder cocaine offenses.
Read the Court's 7-2 opinion [text] per Justice Ginsburg, along with a concurrence [text] from Justice Scalia, a dissent [text] from Justice Thomas, and a second dissent [text] from Justice Alito. AP has more.

In Gall v. United States [Duke Law case backgrounder], the Court held that appeals courts should use a "deferential abuse-of-discretion standard" when considering whether a sentence that is lower than that recommended by the sentencing guidelines is reasonable. Gall pleaded guilty to conspiring to sell ecstasy, which carries a recommended 30-month prison sentence under the federal sentencing guidelines. The district judge, however, sentenced him to 36 months probation and a $100 fine. The US Court of Appeals overturned the district court's ruling [opinion, PDF], saying that the court had not provided a clear explanation for its "extraordinary" deviation from the guidelines. The Supreme Court reversed the appeals court:
We now hold that, while the extent of the difference between a particular sentence and the recommended Guidelines range is surely relevant, courts of appeals must review all sentences - whether inside, just outside, or significantly outside the Guidelines range - under a deferential abuse-of-discretion standard. We also hold that the sentence imposed by the experienced District Judge in this case was reasonable.
Read the Court's 7-2 opinion [text] per Justice Stevens, along with a concurrence [text] from Justice Scalia, a second concurrence [text] from Justice Souter, a dissent [text] from Justice Thomas, and a second dissent [text] from Justice Alito.

Finally, in Watson v. United States [Duke Law case backgrounder], the Court held that someone who trades drugs for a gun does not "use" the firearm "during and in relation to ... (a) drug trafficking crime" under 18 USC Section 924(c)(1)(A) [text]. The US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled [PDF text] that Watson had "used" the unloaded handgun sufficient to support his conviction and sentence, but the Supreme Court reversed:
Given ordinary meaning and the conventions of English, we hold that a person does not "use" a firearm under §924(c)(1)(A) when he receives it in trade for drugs.
Read the Court's opinion [text] per Justice Souter, along with a concurrence [text] from Justice Ginsburg. AP has more.

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Paper Chase is JURIST's real-time legal news service, powered by a team of 30 law student reporters and editors led by law professor Bernard Hibbitts at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. As an educational service, Paper Chase is dedicated to presenting important legal news and materials rapidly, objectively and intelligibly in an accessible format.

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