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Supreme Court says 'cocaine base' has broad definition

The US Supreme Court [official website, JURIST news archive] Thursday ruled [opinion, PDF] in DePierre v. United States [Cornell LII backgrounder] that the harsher sentences under a federal anti-drug statute for "cocaine base" applied to more than just "crack cocaine," but to all forms of cocaine in its basic form. All the justices joined in the opinion written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor rejecting an argument that the term "cocaine base" in the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 (ADAA) [21 USC § 841(a), as amended] referred only to "crack cocaine." The ADAA imposes harsher penalties for those convicted of selling "cocaine base" than the penalties for "powder cocaine." Franz DePierre argued was convicted for selling two bags of cocaine base to government informant. At trial, a federal district court judge denied his request that the jury be instructed that in order to find him guilty of the cocaine base crime they must find that it involved crack cocaine. The US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit affirmed [opinion, PDF] that decision. The Supreme Court held that Congress' use of the term "cocaine base" was broader than "crack cocaine" referring to base forms of cocaine rather than the powder form. The Court recognized that chemically cocaine is a base by definition but said it was Congress' intention to distinguish that the harsher penalties did not apply to powder cocaine. The Court also rejected DePierre's argument that since the US Sentencing Commission (USSC) [official website] changed its definition of cocaine base to mean crack cocaine that the Court should do the same with the ADAA. Under the ADAA at the time, there was a 100:1 ratio for sentences between powder cocaine and cocaine base where to receive a five-year sentence an individual would have to be convicted of selling 500 kilograms of powder cocaine compared to just 5 kilograms of cocaine base.

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments [JURIST report] in this case in February, in which DePierre's counsel argued that the ADAA was passed to address the specific problem of crack cocaine so Congress must have intended "cocaine base" to mean "crack cocaine." The Obama administration is trying to reduce the disparity between crack and powder cocaine sentences. Earlier this month, US Attorney General Eric Holder [official website] testified before the USSC calling for the retroactive application of a new law bringing the sentences for crack cocaine more in line for those of powder cocaine. The USSC is considering retroactively applying the Fair Sentencing Act [S 1789 materials] signed into law [JURIST report] by President Barack Obama last year. However, all the courts of appeals that have heard cases on the new law's retroactivity have held against it [JURIST report].

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