Constitutional Law Keyed to Brest
United States v. Clary
Defendant was convicted of possession with intent to distribute crack cocaine. On sentencing before the district court, Defendant argued that the disparity in the federal sentencing guidelines for crack cocaine and powder cocaine discriminated against African Americans in violation of the Equal Protection Clause. The sentencing guidelines set a minimum sentence of ten years in prison for possession of 50 grams or more of crack cocaine. Possession of powder cocaine did not merit a ten year sentence unless the individual possessed 5000 grams or more. During the hearing, evidence was presented that Congress passed the guidelines after relying on media reports that depicted crack dealers as unemployed, armed, young black gang members. Congress did not hold many hearings on the matter and initially set the powder cocaine guideline at ten years for 2500 grams, but then arbitrarily doubled the amount required to qualify for that sentence. Evidence was presented that, nationally, 92.6 percent of individuals convicted on crack cocaine charges were African American and only 4.7 percent were white. The percentages were nearly reversed as to convictions for powder cocaine. On the other hand, evidence was also presented that Congress had acted after learning that inhaling crack vapors was significantly more dangerous than sniffing powder cocaine and that crack cocaine was cheaper than powder cocaine. Evidence was also introduced that Congress was motive by its perception of crack cocaine as a unique and unprecedented problem for national narcotics enforcement and not by racism. The district court found disparate impact on African Americans in the sentencing guidelines and determined that unconscious racism had led to the disparity. The court ruled in Defendant’s favor and departed from the sentencing guidelines in awarding a lower sentence. The Government appealed to the court of appeals.
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