Criminal Law - Federal Sentencing Guidelines - Eighth Circuit Holds That District Court Cannot Reduce Sentence Based on Categorical Disagreement with 100:1 Powder/crack Cocaine Quantity Ratio

Harvard Law Review, May 2007 | Go to article overview

Criminal Law - Federal Sentencing Guidelines - Eighth Circuit Holds That District Court Cannot Reduce Sentence Based on Categorical Disagreement with 100:1 Powder/crack Cocaine Quantity Ratio


CRIMINAL LAW--FEDERAL SENTENCING GUIDELINES--EIGHTH CIRCUIT HOLDS THAT DISTRICT COURT CANNOT REDUCE SENTENCE BASED ON CATEGORICAL DISAGREEMENT WITH 100:1 POWDER/CRACK COCAINE QUANTITY RATIO.--United States v. Spears, 469 F.3d 1166 (8th Cir. 2006) (en banc).

Although powder and crack cocaine are pharmacologically indistinguishable, (1) these two substances carry markedly different criminal penalties. (2) As the disproportionate racial impact of sentencing crack cocaine offenses much more harshly than those involving identical quantities of powder cocaine has become readily apparent, (3) the United States Sentencing Commission--along with an increasing number of judges and politicians (4)--has called for a reexamination of the 100:1 powder-to-crack quantity ratio in the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. (5) Following the Supreme Court's 2005 decision in United States v. Booker, (6) critics of this sentencing disparity hoped that district courts would have increased freedom to reexamine the ratio, (7) but subsequent appellate decisions have curtailed this possibility. (8) Recently, in United States v. Spears, (9) the Eighth Circuit ruled that it was impermissible for a district judge to grant a reduced sentence to a crack offender based on categorical disagreement with the ratio. (10) This decision relied on questionable conclusions about Congress's intent regarding both the 100:1 ratio and the place of judicial policy choices in a post-Booker world, and its result cabins judges into a cramped and counterproductive role in the sentencing of crack offenders.

In June 2004, Steven Spears was arrested for distributing drugs in an Iowa motel room. (11) He was convicted by a federal jury of conspiracy to distribute almost two kilograms of crack cocaine and 500 grams of powder cocaine. (12) Under the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines, these quantities, combined with Spears's criminal history, generated a sentencing range of 324 to 405 months in prison. (13) At Spears's sentencing hearing, District Judge Bennett (14) categorically rejected the 100:1 Guidelines ratio, opting instead to employ a 20:1 ratio and sentencing Spears to the statutory minimum of 240 months' imprisonment. (15) Both Spears and the government appealed.

The Eighth Circuit upheld Spears's conviction but reversed his sentence as unreasonable. Writing for an en banc court, (16) Judge Riley (17) noted that although Booker seemed to open the door for challenges to the ratio by expanding the judicial role in federal sentencing, (18) no other circuit had allowed a district court to reject categorically the 100:1 ratio. (19) Judge Riley held that the district court failed to perform a case-specific analysis of the sentencing policies reflected in 18 U.S.C. [section] 3553(a). (20) The majority also faulted the district court for exceeding its discretion by engaging in a policy judgment of the sort that only Congress should make. (21) Judge Riley found that the 100:1 ratio represented Congress's policy choice: the ratio was "one that Congress has continually refused to alter," (22) and "[t]he reason for this inaction, whether due to a political stalemate or other legislative grounds, is irrelevant." (23) The court concluded by further emphasizing the institutional considerations that disallow judges from second-guessing Congress's preservation of the disparity: "Our court, as an unelected body, cannot impose its sentencing policy views and dismiss the views of the peoples' elected representatives. The judiciary must defer to Congress on sentencing policy issues." (24)

Judge Bye concurred in affirming Spears's conviction but dissented with respect to the powder/crack disparity. (25) He conceded that the 100:1 ratio maintains some gravitational force in post-Booker sentencing because district courts must employ the ratio to calculate the advisory Guidelines sentence and then give some weight to this range in imposing a particular sentence. (26) But he argued that since Booker made the Guidelines advisory, a district court could "declin[e] to follow Congressional advice" if it had a reasoned basis for doing so. …

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