Crack and Mandatory Minimum Sentences (Part 1)

by | Dec 27, 2021 | Blog, Criminal Law, Monmouth County, New Jersey, Ocean County

On June 14, 2021, the United States Supreme Court decided the case of Terry v. United States. The principal issue concerned the scope of availability for sentence reductions for crack offenders under the federal First Step Act.

Justice Thomas wrote for the 8-1 majority of the Court in relevant part: Petitioner Tarahrick Terry contends that he is eligible to receive a sentence reduction for his 2008 crack cocaine conviction. In 1986, Congress established mandatory-minimum penalties for certain drug offenses. That legislation defined three relevant penalties for possession with intent to distribute cocaine. The first two carried mandatory minimum sentences based on drug quantity: a 5-year mandatory minimum (triggered by either 5 grams of crack cocaine or 500 grams of powder cocaine) and a 10-year mandatory minimum (triggered by either 50 grams of crack or 5 kilograms of powder).

The third penalty differed from the first two: it did not carry a mandatory minimum sentence, did not treat crack and powder cocaine offenses differently, and did not depend on drug quantity. Petitioner was subjected to this third penalty when he pleaded guilty in 2008 to possession with intent to distribute an unspecified amount of crack. The District Court determined that his offense involved about 4 grams of crack.

Two years later, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, which increased the crack quantity thresholds from 5 grams to 28 for the 5- year mandatory minimum and from 50 grams to 280 for the 10-year mandatory minimum. §2(a), 124 Stat. 2372. But Congress did not make this change retroactive until 2018, when it enacted the First Step Act. After that, Petitioner sought resentencing on the ground that he was convicted of a crack offense modified by the Fair Sentencing Act. The District Court denied his motion, and the Eleventh Circuit affirmed.

Justice Thomas is foreshadowing a denial of Terry’s appeal. His attorneys likely argued that the three-category distinction produces an absurd result in which he becomes ineligible for a sentence reduction because his offense was not serious enough to qualify for a mandatory minimum sentence. The absurdity is that convicts who committed more serious crack offenses will end up being released from prison sooner than Terry under the First Step Act.