US Supreme Court hears oral arguments on sentencing requirement for drug offenses
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US Supreme Court hears oral arguments on sentencing requirement for drug offenses

The US Supreme Court Wednesday heard oral arguments in Concepcion v. United States, a case pertaining to sentencing requirements and reductions for drug offenses under the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 and the First Step Act.

In 2008, Carlos Concepcion was found guilty of one count of possession of at least five grams of cocaine base with intent to distribute and distribution. Concepcion was sentenced to 19 years imprisonment in the District Court for the District of Massachusetts. His sentence was based on the most up-to-date edition of the federal sentencing guidelines in 2008.

In 2010, the Fair Sentencing Act was passed by Congress. The Fair Sentencing Act reduced the sentencing of penalties for most federal crimes involving cocaine base. Further, in 2018, the First Step Act was passed by Congress. The First Step Act made the changes of the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive and authorized federal courts to resentence offenders based on the new law.

Due to the change in law, Concepcion filed a motion with the court for resentencing. The District of Massachusetts denied Concepcion’s request. Concepcion appealed to the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit. On appeal, Concepcion argued that the District Court of Massachusetts was required to update and reevaluate the sentence it provided him due to the statutory changes. The First Circuit agreed with the District of Massachusetts and denied Concepcion’s request, holding that the sentencing judgment was reasonable and properly considered pertinent factors of the case.

On September 30, 2021, the US Supreme Court agreed to hear the case. The question presented to the court was:

Whether when deciding if it should impose a reduced sentence on an individual under Section 404(b) of the First Step Act of 2018, 21 USC Section 841 note, a district court must or may consider intervening legal and factual developments.

During oral arguments, Justices seemed wary of giving federal district courts the power to reject updated sentencing guidelines and mitigating circumstances when considering shortening individuals’ sentences. Justice Neil Gorsuch, in particular, stated:

In what world does it make sense that some district courts will take cognizance of changes in the law like that and others will not, and the results will be … dramatically different for different — individuals? I just don’t know another area in which we give lower courts that kind of latitude.

Justice Samuel Alito joined him by suggesting that “it’s hard to understand why Congress would have wanted that.”

The decision for the case is expected by this summer.