Sixth Circuit Rejects Racial Disparity Challenge To Crack Cocaine Sentences, Reverses Panel That Applied Fair Sentencing Act Retroactively

By Christopher Zoukis

On December 3, 2013, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, sitting en banc, rejected a challenge to the federal crack cocaine sentencing regimen that had been held unconstitutional in May by a three-judge panel of the Court.  By a 10-7 margin, the full court ruled that the crack cocaine sentences handed down to two black defendants, withstood review for racial disparities under the Fifth and Eighth Amendments to the United States Constitution.  The Court also ruled that Sentencing Guidelines relief from mandatory minimum sentences provided by the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, Pub. L. 111-220, 124 Stat. 2372, would not be applied retroactively under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2).  United States v. Blewett, Case No. 12-5226, 5582 (6th Cir., 12/3/12)(en banc).

The en banc court reversed a controversial decision by a three-judge panel of the same court that equated the federal crack cocaine sentencing regimen with “slavery and Jim Crow laws,” and vacated the sentences of two black defendants as violation of the equal protection clause. See United States v. Blewett, 719 F.3d 482, 493 (6th Cir. 2013), vacated (July 11, 2013).

The en banc court ruled that the Blewett defendants’ claim of an equal protection clause violation, due to the crack sentencing laws having a disparate effect on blacks, failed because prior decisions of that court had already addressed the issue, see, e.g., United States v. Williams, 962 F.2d 1218, 1227 (6th Cir. 1992), and that an Eighth Amendment concern over the length of their sentence were negated by Supreme Court decisional law that had upheld far more onerous punishments for drug dealing than the 10-year sentences imposed on Cornelius Blewett and his cousin, Jarreous Blewett. See Harmelin v. Michigan, 501 U.S. 957, 965 (1991)(upholding life-without-parole sentence for 672 grams of cocaine).

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Blewett Crack Relief On Hold: Sixth Circuit Grants En Banc Review

On May 31, 2013, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit granted a request by the United States for en banc review in United States v. Blewett, No. 12-5226/5582, 2013 WL 2121945 (May 17, 2013). In Blewett, a three-judge panel ruled that the recent amendments to provisions governing sentencing in crack cocaine

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