Justices end cocaine dealers’ legal limbo

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court threw a lifeline to thousands of convicted cocaine dealers who were on the edge of what the justices called a sentencing cliff.

In a 5-4 ruling, the court said the Fair Sentencing Act, which relaxed mandatory prison sentences for crack cocaine dealers, covers people who were charged but not yet sentenced when the act became law in 2010.

One of the few times recently when Congress has shortened rather than lengthened sentences, the act passed with bipartisan support to eliminate a stark disparity between the required sentences for powder cocaine sellers, who are often white, and those who sell crack cocaine, who are disproportionally black.

Cocaine traffickers were dealt with much more leniently than those who sold crack. One gram of crack cocaine was treated as equal to 100 grams of powder cocaine.

Congress did not specify whether the change should be retroactive, but JusticeStephen G. Breyer, who wrote the majority opinion for the court, said Thursday that not making the act retroactive to those charged but not yet sentenced would “preserve a disproportionate status quo” and “create new anomalies.” He concluded that it would create “a new disparate sentencing cliff.”

Breyer said that not applying the act to those already in the legal system when the act was passed “would produce a crazy quilt of sentences, at odds with Congress’ basic efforts to achieve more uniform, more proportionate sentences.” He said that Congress “could not have intended any such result.”

Before the court were the cases of two Illinois men who found themselves in great legal jeopardy because of the dates of their crimes.

Corey Hill sold 53 grams of crack to an informant in 2007. In December 2010, a federal judge in Chicago sentenced him to 10 years in prison, instead of the roughly four years he would have gotten under the law that had passed four months earlier.

Edward Dorsey was caught selling 5.5 grams of crack at a motel in Kankakee, Ill. One month after the law was signed, he was also sentenced to a mandatory minimum 10 years because of a previous drug felony. Under the new law, he would not have been subject to a minimum sentence.

Joining Breyer and the other more liberal justices was Justice Anthony M. Kennedy.

In a dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia agreed with Breyer that ignoring the change in the law for those charged but not yet sentenced “leads to a series of cliffs.” But he concluded, “This does not establish that Congress clearly meant the new mandatory minimums to apply to pre-enactment offenders.”