WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court ruled against a Florida man who sought to have his sentence for a low-level drug crime reduced, holding that a bipartisan push in Congress in 2018 to ease such punishments didn’t address his circumstances.
Though the question in the case was narrow, it arrived as bipartisan majorities in Congress have sought to rethink long sentences for relatively small amounts of drugs.
Associate Justice Clarence Thomas wrote the opinion for the court. Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote a concurring opinion.
The First Step Act eased tough-on-crime policies that swelled prison populations and had a disproportionate impact on African American communities. But its language was unclear on whether certain low-level offenders could seek retroactive sentence reductions, two lower courts held, setting up a situation where those convicted of more serious crimes may wind up with a more lenient punishment.
More:Supreme Court skeptical of applying Trump-era criminal justice law retroactively
More:Senate passes First Step Act with push from criminal justice groups
Tarahrick Terry pleaded guilty to possessing a small amount of crack cocaine in 2008 – about 3.9 grams – and was sentenced to more than 15 years in prison. He filed suit after the 2018 law passed seeking to reduce his sentence.
The case involved the interplay of three laws passed by Congress: Reagan-era drug statutes, which created three tiers of sentencing based on the amount of drugs involved, a 2010 law intended to reduce penalties for crack cocaine and the 2018 First Step Act.
In 2010, lawmakers increased the amount of crack cocaine needed to trigger a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence from 50 grams to 280 grams. In a second tier, carrying a five-year mandatory minimum sentence, Congress increased the amount of drugs necessary from five grams to 28 grams. By raising the threshold for the amounts of drugs required, lawmakers lowered the sentences for many people convicted of carrying a small amount of crack.
The 2018 First Step Act made those sentence reductions retroactive.
But the complication, and the heart of Terry’s case, involves a third tier – a catchall that sets a sentence of up to 20 years for any amount of drugs not covered by the others. When Terry was sentenced in 2008, the third tier went up to 5 grams, so he was on the upper end of that range. Now, it tops out at 28 grams and he’s on the lower end.
Lawmakers in 2010 changed that third tier by default, since the law passed that year amended the other two tiers, but they didn’t explicitly change the text of the statute as to the third tier. The grant of retroactivity in 2018 applied only to the tiers that were directly amended by the 2010 law.
Terry’s lawyer said Congress must have intended the benefit of retroactivity for low-level offenders if it offered it to those with larger amounts of drugs, but the provision didn’t specifically say that. The Justice Department under the Trump administration noted that Terry faced the same sentence under the old law as he did under the modified one: Up to 20 years.
The Biden administration took the opposite view, agreeing with Terry. Given this change in the government’s position, the Supreme Court found an outside lawyer to argue in defense of the law in May, the final oral arguments of the 2020-21 term.
Several of the First Step Act’s authors, including Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, told the court it was their intent to cover low-level offenders in Terry’s situation. But at a time when the court puts heavy emphasis on the text of a statute, both conservative and liberal justices wrestled to square that goal with the specific language.
“I’m looking at what Congress did, not what maybe they should have done,” Associate Justice Stephen Breyer said during arguments.
A federal district court and an Atlanta appeals court both ruled that Terry’s circumstances weren’t covered by the retroactivity provision.