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Supreme Court expands application of Fair Sentencing Act

The US Supreme Court [official website] ruled 5-4 [decision, PDF] Thursday that the Fair Sentencing Act (FSA) [materials; JURIST report], which reduces minimum sentences for crack-cocaine convictions, applies to defendants who were sentenced after the act was in place, even if they were arrested before the act took effect. In the combined cases of Dorsey v. United States and Hill v. United States [SCOTUSblog backgrounders], the court considered which sentencing guidelines should be applied. In Dorsey, the defendant was arrested in possession of 5.5 grams of crack cocaine and was convicted. During the intervening time, the FSA was passed, which raised the amount of crack cocaine required for a five-year sentence from 5 to 28 grams. In his opinion, Justice Stephen Breyer concluded that "Congress intended the Fair Sentencing Act's new, lower mandatory minimums to apply to the post-Act sentencing of pre-Act offenders," and that the statute should be applied as Congress intended. The FSA did not include any language to make it apply retroactively, but it not did explicitly deny such retroactivity either. Justice Antonin Scalia filed a dissenting opinion, joined by the Chief Justice and Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito, finding that Congress must clearly repeal an old statute in order to eliminate its effect.

The court's decision overturns a decision [text] by the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit upholding the defendants' original sentences based on the old sentencing guidelines. The court heard oral arguments [JURIST report] in the case in April. The court agreed to hear the case in November 2011.

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