Posted on 8 Aug 2012
A Look at Two Significant Criminal Law Cases Recently Decided by the Supreme Court
Now that the dust has settled from the highly publicized (and controversial) ending to the most recent Supreme Court term, let’s take a quick look at a few of the Court’s rulings that have substantial consequences within the criminal justice system.
The Fair Sentencing Act (FSA), enacted on August 3, 2010, essentially reduced the crack-to-powder cocaine disparity from 100 to 1, to 18 to 1. As we discussed here, uncertainty arose as to whether the FSA should apply to all sentences imposed on or after August 3, 2010, even if the actual criminal offense took place prior to the FSA becoming law. In Dorsey v. United States, the Supreme Court held that the FSA’s new, lower mandatory minimum sentences for crack offenses should in fact apply to sentences imposed on defendants whose conduct took place before the Act became effective, but who were sentenced after the Act’s enactment.
The Court analyzed the interaction between federal drug statutes and the Sentencing Guidelines, which shed light on how the 100 to 1 crack-to-powder cocaine disparity arose in the first place. The Court then went on to describe the strong criticism that developed surrounding this disparity, and also noted that, “the public had come to understand sentences embodying the 100-to-1 ratio as reflecting unjustified race-based differences.” Ultimately, the Court concluded that the FSA’s “plain import” or “fair implication” is that its “new, lower mandatory minimums … apply to the post-Act sentencing of pre-Act offenders.” This ruling will finally rectify the actions of many federal prosecutors in the Eastern District of North Carolina, and elsewhere, who took the opposite position.
Another important case decided by the Supreme Court held that mandatory life without parole for offenders under the age of 18 at the time of their crime violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment. Miller v. Alabama involved 14-year older defendants who were convicted of murder. The criminal statutes in their states mandated that they be punished to a term of imprisonment of life without parole if found guilty, and offered no alternative sentence.
In reaching its decision, the court reasoned, “[b]y removing youth from the balance – by subjecting a juvenile to the same life-without-parole sentence applicable to an adult – these laws prohibit a sentencing authority from assessing whether the law’s harshest term of imprisonment proportionately punishes a juvenile offender.” Importantly, the Court’s problem is with laws that mandate life without parole for juveniles who commit certain crimes – the Court did not wholly prohibit a child from receiving this punishment if a sentencing court at least considers the offender’s youth in making an individualized assessment of appropriate punishment.
North Carolina’s first degree murder statute is similar to those described above, and requires that “any such person who was under 18 years of age at the time of the murder shall be punished with imprisonment in the State’s prison for life without parole.” If you or someone you know committed an offense while under the age of 18 years old and was sentenced to life without parole in North Carolina, please contact BSF for further consultation on possible relief that may be available.