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SCOTUS rules certain low-level crack cocaine offenders not eligible for resentencing

Supreme Court
Posted at 8:33 AM, Jun 14, 2021

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously Monday that people convicted of certain low-level crack cocaine offenses are not eligible for resentencing under the First Step Act.

That legislation was passed in 2018 and signed into law by then-President Donald Trump. Among other things, the bill reformed sentencing laws, which is what the Terry v. United States involves.

The case was brought by a Florida man named Tarahrick Terry. He pleaded guilty in 2008 to possession with intent to distribute an unspecified amount of crack cocaine. A district court determined that his offense involved about 4 grams of the substance. He was sentenced to nearly 16 years in prison.

Terry sought resentencing on the grounds that he was convicted of a crack offense modified by the Fair Sentencing Act that was passed by Congress in 2010 and the change was retroactive when lawmakers enacted the First Step Act in 2018.

A district court denied his motion and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit affirmed that ruling. In Monday’s opinion, which was delivered by Justice Clarence Thomas, the Supreme Court also affirmed that ruling.

“A crack offender is eligible for a sentence reduction under the First Step Act only if convicted of a crack offense that triggered a mandatory minimum sentence,” the opinion says. “The First Step Act makes an offender eligible for a sentence reduction only if the offender previously received a sentence for a covered offense.”

The act defines a “covered offense” as a “violation of a federal criminal statute, the statutory penalties for which are modified by” certain provisions in the Fair Sentencing Act.

“The Fair Sentencing Act modified the statutory penalties for offenses that triggered mandatory minimum penalties because a person charged with the same conduct today no longer would face the same statutory penalties that they would have faced before 2010,” the opinion says. “For example, a person charged with knowing or intentional possession with intent to distribute at least 50 grams of crack was subject to a 10-year mandatory minimum before 2010. Now, he would be subject to a 5-year mandatory minimum.”

However, the Fair Sentencing Act did not modify the penalties for Terry’s offense. Before and after 2010, a person charged with knowing or intentional possession with intent to distribute an unspecified amount of a Schedule I or II drug was subject to statutory penalties of 0 to 20 years in prison, up to a $1 million fine, and a period of supervised release.

Justice Thomas wrote that the question in the case centered around whether crack offenders who did not trigger a mandatory minimum qualify to have their sentences reduced. The court ruled that they do not.

The sentencing changes in the First Step Act and the Fair Sentencing Act were put into place after it was determined that people convicted of crack offenses were disproportionately Black, as opposed to those found with powder cocaine, which was more commonly used in white populations. For decades, the quantity thresholds for mandatory minimum sentences for crack cocaine were much lower than powder cocaine. The bills were passed, in part, to address some of those types of biases.