Supreme Court will not expand crack cocaine reforms to low-level offenders

The justices affirmed the nearly 16-year prison term handed out to Tarahrick Terry of Florida, who was arrested with 3.9 grams of crack on him in 2008.

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously Monday that low-level crack cocaine offenders convicted more than a decade ago can’t take advantage of a 2018 federal law to seek reduced prison time.

The justices affirmed the nearly 16-year prison term handed out to Tarahrick Terry of Florida, who was arrested with 3.9 grams of crack on him in 2008.

Terry’s case concerned the reach of the First Step Act, a bipartisan 2018 law signed by former President Donald Trump. Aimed at reducing racial disparities in sentencing, the law allows prisoners convicted of older crack crimes to seek reduced sentences.

But the law specifically addresses crack possession only above 5 grams for one category of possession and above 50 grams for another category.

That allowed crack cocaine kingpins to seek reduced sentences, but it left convicts like Terry in a legal limbo, with courts around the country coming to different conclusions.

U.S. Supreme Court
Clouds are seen above The U.S. Supreme Court building on May 17, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

In an opinion by Justice Clarence Thomas, the high court said Terry and those like him who were not subject to a mandatory prison term based on how much crack they possessed are out of luck.

“The question here is whether crack offenders who did not trigger a mandatory minimum qualify. They do not,” Thomas wrote.

Terry is in the final months of his prison term. And he apparently is serving his remaining time on home confinement, according to the Biden administration.

The outcome probably affects no more than a couple hundred prison inmates since most people convicted of possessing relatively little crack that long ago already have finished serving their sentences.

The 2018 law, like the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, was partly aimed at addressing disparities, which fell disproportionately hard on Black people, in the treatment of people convicted of crack and powder cocaine offenses.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor agreed with the outcome but wrote a separate opinion in which she criticized Thomas’ treatment of the history of the disparity between powder and crack possession, which was as large as 100 to 1. Some prison terms were the same for people who were convicted of possessing 100 times more powder than crack.

Sotomayor called said Thomas provided “an unnecessary, incomplete, and sanitized history of the 100-to-1 ratio. The full history is far less benign.”

The case only affects people whose crimes took place before August 2010 because the Fair Sentencing Act took effect then and covered crimes committed from that point forward.

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The Trump administration had argued that Terry is not eligible to seek a sentence reduction, but the Biden administration changed course.

In another decision issued Monday, the court made it harder for people appealing their convictions to take advantage of an earlier ruling that benefitted defendants charged with violating federal gun laws.

In 2019, the court decided that prosecutors must prove that people charged with violating federal gun laws knew they were not allowed to have a weapon. Federal law prohibits a person who was previously convicted of a crime from possessing a gun.

But on Monday, the court ruled against two defendants who were convicted before the 2019 decision and tried to invoke it on appeal.

Writing for the court, Justice Brett Kavanaugh said defendants in these cases face “an uphill climb” in trying to show that their cases would have come out differently if it had to be shown they knew they couldn’t have guns.

“The reason is simple: If a person is a felon, he ordinarily knows he is a felon,” Kavanaugh wrote.