Supreme Court set to hear 'War on Drugs' case pertaining to mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders

 September 26, 2023

An aspect of the decades-long "War on Drugs" is set to be addressed in the coming Supreme Court session that, regardless of how the justices rule, will have a significant impact one way or the other on sentencing for individuals convicted of nonviolent drug offenses.

The ultimate decision, in that case, will come down to how a majority of the justices define the term "and" in a particular federal statute in relation to certain criteria considered by judges in determining whether or not mandatory minimum sentences must be applied, according to Fortune.

The particular case, in which oral arguments will be heard on Oct. 2, reached the highest court in the land after multiple appeals courts across the country reached different conclusions with respect to the pertinent question at hand.

Discretion for judges to avoid mandatory minimum sentences for certain offenders

The case known as Pulsifer v. United States was picked up by the Supreme Court in February and involves a so-called "safety valve" provision within federal sentencing guidelines that were altered in 2018 by the criminal justice reform First Step Act legislation.

That legislation aimed to allow federal judges more discretion in handing down sentences less than the mandatory minimums for certain convicted drug offenders, particularly those who were "low-level" and "nonviolent" and who agreed to plead guilty and were cooperative with prosecutors.

The dispute here is of some importance as how the high court eventually rules will likely have an impact on the sentences of thousands of current and future inmates convicted after the law was passed who may be eligible for reduced prison sentences.

Does "and" mean "and" or does it mean "or"?

The statute in question, 18 U.S.C. Sec. 3553(f)(1), states that certain defendants can avoid mandatory minimum sentences if the court finds that "the defendant does not have -- (A) more than 4 criminal history points, excluding any criminal history points resulting from a 1-point offense, as determined under the sentencing guidelines; (B) a prior 3-point offense, as determined under the sentencing guidelines; and (C) a prior 2-point violent offense, as determined under the sentencing guidelines."

According to Fortune, at issue here is the word "and" in between the (B) and (C) provisions and whether it truly does mean "and" or whether it could be considered to mean "or" -- a question that at least one appeals court panel acknowledged was "perplexing."

In other words, the justices must determine whether a nonviolent drug offense defendant is ineligible for the "safety valve" to avoid a mandatory minimum sentence if they meet all three of the listed criteria or just some of them.

The government has argued that a defendant meeting just one of those criteria is rendered ineligible for relief while inmates have argued that all three conditions must be met in order to be deemed ineligible for a reduced sentence.

Circuit courts differ on applicability of criteria

Indeed, at least three of the federal circuit courts have ruled against defendants who met just some of the criteria while at least three other circuits have sided with defendants in favor of the broader definition of ineligibility, according to Fortune.

Central to this case is an inmate named Mark Pulsifer who was convicted of distributing methamphetamine and received a mandatory minimum prison sentence of 15 years since two of the three criteria listed in the statute were applicable to him, per Fortune, though his actual sentence was reduced to around 13 years for other unrelated reasons and he is scheduled to be released in 2031.

A similar case involves a woman in Texas named Nonami Palomares who was caught moving heroin across the southern border and received a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years due to the fact that she had a single prior drug conviction on her record from 20 years earlier. Yet, there was also a man in California named Eric Lopez who was busted with 45 pounds of meth and, despite his own prior drug conviction, was given a reduced sentence below the mandatory minimum for his particular crime.

The Supreme Court justices will now have to parse the words of the statute and consider the actual intent of Congress in deciding whether a nonviolent drug offender inmate is rendered ineligible for a reduced sentence if they meet all or just some of the three listed criteria.

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