Sentencing: US 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals Throws out Crack Cocaine Sentence

In a ruling Monday, the US 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia threw out a 24-year prison sentence for a man possessing less than three ounces of crack cocaine. The court held that the US District Court judge who sentenced the man erred in believing he had to sentence the man based on the 100:1 quantity disparity between crack and powder cocaine. Such sentences are no longer mandatory, said the appeals court, only advisory.

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Under a 1986 law passed in the midst of a wave of anti-drug hysteria, the US Congress enacted a two-tier sentencing scheme for cocaine defendants with crack defendants facing sentences decades longer than powder cocaine defendants for possessing the same amount of the drug. But the appeals court held that since the US Supreme Court last year ruled that federal sentencing guidelines were only advisory and not mandatory, sentencing judges need not be bound by the guidelines.

The three-judge panel held that defendant Johnny Gunter was entitled to a new sentencing hearing. "The limited holding here is that district courts may consider the crack/powder cocaine differential in the guidelines as a factor, but not a mandate, in the... sentencing process," wrote Judge Thomas Ambro for the court.

Assistant US Attorney Robert Zauzmer told the Philadelphia Inquirer the ruling was likely to be cited by every defendant in a crack case. "This is a significant opinion which we are studying closely," he said, adding prosecutors were considering whether to ask the appeals court to reconsider the decision or appeal to the US Supreme Court.

Assistant Federal Defender David McColgin, meanwhile, told the Inquirer the ruling would help reduce the racial disparities existing in cocaine sentencing. "This has a great impact in helping to reduce the racial disparity that stems from that ratio," McColgin said.

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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mandatory sentence on crack no longer applies

Why can't the Federal Government go over all the crack cocaine offenders in the prison files today and automatically reduce all of their sentences based on the Johnny Gunther case rather than clogging up all the court rooms and paying for attorneys to bring the cases back?

The Short Answer

There is no short answer to this question. Some reasons include (1) this case only applies within the Third Circuit Court of Appeals (Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Virgin Islands) -- in other parts of the U.S., the 100:1 ratio is still effectively mandatory; (2) the U.S. RARELY pays for the inmate to get an attorney to bring their cases back before a court (so inmates have to proceed "pro se," or by themselves); (3) U.S. v. Booker, which made the Federal Sentencing Guidelines discretionary instead of (unconstitutionally) mandatory, is not currently retroactive -- the USA's position is that Booker does not apply to cases closed (no appeals left) before January 12, 2005; (4) given No. (3), above, there are often not the procedural tools to get a specific, closed case back into the sentencing court; (5) U.S. Attorneys and their Assistants (AUSAs) get stripes for high conviction rates and long prison sentences, and even suggesting to go back (of their own volition, no less) and reduce standing sentences could be politically devastating to an AUSA; and (6) AUSA's also get stripes for towing the party line on the Drug War, and suggesting prior Drug War policies are unfair is not towing that line (more potentially devastating effects on Justice Department agents).

EJ Hurst II
Attorney at Law
PMB No. 124
550M Ritchie Highway
Severna Park, Maryland 21146
Tel. (859) 361-8000

[email protected]

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