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United States v. Clary

    Brief Fact Summary.

    Clary (Defendant) was convicted of possessing with intent to distribute crack cocaine. He challenged the federal sentencing guidelines that made sentences for the possession of crack cocaine equivalent to sentences for possessing 100 times that amount in powder cocaine. The Government appealed the trial court’s award of a sentence below the federal guidelines.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law.

    Where a sentencing guideline provides a significantly different penalty for possessing crack cocaine versus powder cocaine and results in a disproportionate impact on African Americans, it does not violate equal protection when there is insufficient evidence that Congress created the disparity with a discriminatory intent.

    Facts.

    Defendant was convicted of possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine. On sentencing before the district court, Defendant argued that the disparity in the federal sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine and powder cocaine discriminated against African Americans in violation of the Equal Protection Clause. The sentencing guidelines set a minimum sentence of ten years in prison for possession of 50 grams or more of crack cocaine. Possession of powder cocaine did not merit a ten year sentence unless the individual possessed 5000 grams or more. During the hearing, evidence was presented that Congress passed the guidelines after relying on media reports that depicted crack dealers as unemployed, armed, young black gang members. Congress did not hold many hearings on the matter and initially set the powder cocaine guideline at ten years for 2500 grams, but then arbitrarily doubled the amount required to qualify for that sentence. Evidence was presented that, nationally, 92.6 percent of individuals convicted on crack cocaine charges were African American and only 4.7 percent were white. The percentages were nearly reversed as to convictions for powder cocaine. On the other hand, evidence was also presented that Congress had acted after learning that inhaling crack vapors was significantly more dangerous than sniffing powder cocaine and that crack cocaine was cheaper than powder cocaine. Evidence was also introduced that Congress was motive by its perception of crack cocaine as a unique and unprecedented problem for national narcotics enforcement and not by racism. The district court found disparate impact on African Americans in the sentencing guidelines and determined that unconscious racism had led to the disparity. The court ruled in Defendant’s favor and departed from the sentencing guidelines in awarding a lower sentence. The Government appealed to the court of appeals.

    Issue.

    Where a sentencing guideline provides a significantly different penalty for possessing crack cocaine versus powder cocaine and results in a disproportionate impact on African Americans, does it violate equal protection?

    Held.

    (Gibson, J.) No. Where a sentencing guideline provides a significantly different penalty for possessing crack cocaine versus powder cocaine and results in a disproportionate impact on African Americans, it does not violate equal protection when there is insufficient evidence that Congress created the disparity with a discriminatory intent. Congress had rational motives for creating the disparity, such as the potency of crack cocaine, the ease with which it can be carried and concealed, the highly addictive nature of crack, and the violence accompanying crack dealing. Assuming that the disparity in the guidelines does disproportionately impact African Americans, the guidelines are only unconstitutional if they were enacted with a discriminatory intent. There is no evidence that Congress or the Sentencing Commission had such a discriminatory purpose in setting the sentencing guidelines. The trial court’s determination of “unconscious racism” does not create a discriminatory purpose in enacting the guidelines. While media reports depicting crack dealers may have influenced some legislators, there is no evidence that the reports caused Congress to enact the guidelines because of their adverse effect on African Americans instead of to respond to a quickly growing and dangerous form of drug use. Congress’s speed in passing the guidelines can be attributed to its desire to quickly address a serious problem as much as to racial animus. Evidence was introduced that Congress acted based upon the problem posed to narcotics enforcement. Although the scientific evidence concerning the differences between crack and powder cocaine is contradictory, newly discovered research regarding the issue and contradicting the testimony before Congress does not establish a discriminatory purpose behind Congress’s action at the time. Reversed and remanded.

    Discussion.

    President Obama signed the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 (Public Law 111-220). This Act reduced the ratio for crack cocaine versus powder cocaine from 100 to 1 to 18 to 1 in order to improve the fairness of the justice system. Critics believe this Act did not go far enough and that the ratio should be eliminated altogether. The Act also does not address the enforcement tactics of federal law enforcement, which still seem to be racially biased. Some statistics show that approximately 80 percent of individuals arrested for crack-related crimes are African Americans even though public health data shows that they make up only one-third of crack cocaine users.


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