SCOTUS Opinion: Court Limits Sentencing Reductions Under Fair Sentencing Act To Mandatory Minimums

In 1986, Congress passed laws that punished possession of crack more severely than possession of cocaine, providing mandatory minimum sentences for smaller quantities of crack, but also allowing sentencing without a mandatory minimum as an alternative for those convicted of an unspecified amount of a drug. Tarahrick Terry was convicted of possessing an unspecified amount of crack under the alternative approach in 2008. Then, in 2010, Congress passed the Fair Sentencing Act, which somewhat reduced the disparity in treatment between the drugs, and then passed the First Step Act in 2018, which made the Act retroactive. Terry argued that he was eligible for resentencing under the now-retroactive Act. The district court denied relief, and the Eleventh Circuit affirmed.

The Court, in a unanimous opinion by Justice Thomas, affirmed, holding that the modifications to sentencing under the Act only applied to sentences issued under one of the mandatory minimums, and not the alternative approach used on Terry. The Act did not modify sentences for an unspecified amount of drug possession, so it could not be used to seek resentencing for such sentences. Justice Sotomayor concurred, arguing that while the Act took an important step to remove the unreasonable disparity between sentences for crack and cocaine possession, it “left behind” people like Terry.

A link to the opinion in Terry v. United States is here: