Facts of the Case
Tarahrick Terry pleaded guilty to one count of possession with intent to distribute a substance containing a “detectable” amount of cocaine base (3.9 grams), thus triggering the penalties in 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(C). Based on his prior convictions, the statutory term of imprisonment was 0 to 30 years, and the district court sentenced him to 188 months’ imprisonment with 6 years’ supervised release.
Terry moved for a sentence reduction on the basis that the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 raised the weight ceiling of § 841(b) from 5 grams of cocaine base to 28 grams. The district court denied his motion, concluding that Terry did not commit a “covered offense” and thus was not eligible for relief under the First Step Act, which made retroactive the statutory penalties for certain offenses committed before August 3, 2010. Because the Fair Sentencing Act did not expressly amend § 841(b)(1)(C), Terry’s offense was not a “covered offense.”
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed.
Do pre-August 3, 2010, crack offenders sentenced under 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(C) have a “covered offense” under Section 404 of the First Step Act?
Crack offenders sentenced under 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(C) do not have a “covered offense” under Section 404 of the First Step Act because a sentence reduction under the Act is available only if an offender’s prior conviction of a crack cocaine offense triggered a mandatory minimum sentence. Justice Clarence Thomas authored the majority opinion of the Court.
An offender is eligible for a sentence reduction only if he previously received “a sentence for a covered offense,” which the Act defines as “a violation of a Federal criminal statute, the statutory penalties for which were modified by” certain provisions in the Fair Sentencing Act. The Fair Sentencing Act modified the statutory penalties only for offenses that triggered mandatory-minimum penalties. Because Terry was convicted for an offense that does not have a mandatory minimum, his offense was not a “covered offense” and thus was not eligible for a sentence reduction under the Act.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor authored an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment. She expressly declined to join the majority’s “sanitized” description of the history of penalties for crack offenses and pointed out that because Terry was both convicted under subparagraph (C) and sentenced as a career offender, he never had a chance to ask for a sentence that reflects today’s understanding of the lesser severity of his crime, and he never will get that chance without action by the political branches.
On June 14th, 2021, the Supreme Court decided Terry v. U.S. The issue before the...
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On May 4, 2021 the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Terry v. United States. The...