UNITED STATES NEWS

The Supreme Court will hear a case with a lot of ‘buts’ & ‘ifs’ over the meaning of ‘and’

Sep 24, 2023, 4:46 AM

WASHINGTON (AP) — It’s hard to imagine a less contentious or more innocent word than “and.”

But how to interpret that simple conjunction has prompted a Supreme Court on Oct. 2, the first day of its new term. What the justices decide could affect thousands of prison sentences each year.

Federal courts across the country disagree about whether the word, as it is used in a bipartisan 2018 criminal justice overhaul, indeed means “and” or whether it means “or.” Even an appellate panel that upheld a longer sentence called the structure of the provision “perplexing.”

The Supreme Court has stepped in to settle the dispute.

It’s the kind of task the justices — and maybe their English teachers — love. The case requires the close parsing of a part of a federal statute, the First Step Act, which aimed in part to reduce mandatory minimum sentences and give judges more discretion.

In particular, the justices will be examining a so-called safety valve provision that is meant to spare low-level, nonviolent drug dealers who agree to plead guilty and cooperate with prosecutors from having to face often longer mandatory sentences.

It’s much more than an exercise in diagramming a sentence. Nearly 6,000 people convicted of drug trafficking in the 2021 budget year alone are in the pool of those who might be eligible for reduced sentences, according to data compiled by the U.S. Sentencing Commission.

Overall, more than 10,000 people sentenced since the law took effect could be affected, according to Douglas Berman, an expert on sentencing at Ohio State University’s law school.

The provision lists three criteria for allowing judges to forgo a mandatory minimum sentence that basically look to the severity of prior crimes. Congress did not make it easy by writing the section in the negative so that a judge can exercise discretion in sentencing if a defendant “does not have” three sorts of criminal history.

The question is how to determine eligibility for the safety valve — whether any of the conditions is enough to disqualify someone or whether it takes all three to be ineligible.

Lawyers for Mark Pulsifer, the inmate whose challenge the court will hear, say all three conditions must apply before the longer sentence can be imposed. The government says just one condition is enough to merit the mandatory minimum.

Pulsifer pleaded guilty to one count of distributing at least 50 grams of methamphetamine. Two of the three conditions applied to Pulsifer, and that was enough for the trial court and the St. Louis-based 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to make him eligible for a mandatory sentence of at least 15 years. He actually received a 13 1/2-year sentence for unrelated reasons.

Now 61, Pulsifer is not scheduled to be released from prison until 2031, according to federal Bureau of Prison records.

Appeals courts based in Chicago, Cincinnati and New Orleans also have ruled against defendants. Courts in Atlanta, Richmond, Virginia and San Francisco have ruled to broaden eligibility for the safety valve reductions.

In one case in Texas, Nonami Palomares, who was caught with heroin at the U.S.-Mexican border, was given a mandatory 10-year sentence because she had a previous 20-year-old drug offense. She might otherwise have had two years knocked off her sentence.

But in San Diego, Eric Lopez had about 45 pounds of meth on him when he was arrested qualified for the safety valve, despite his own earlier conviction, and avoided an additional year behind bars. U.S. District Judge James Lorenz wrote in Lopez’s case that the law was ambiguous.

Both Palomares’ and Lopez’s cases could be affected by the Supreme Court’s decision.

Linguists who specialize in the law submitted a brief in which they wrote that surveys they conducted found people thought the language was either ambiguous or should be read the way Pulsifer’s legal team argues.

FAMM, which advocates against mandatory minimum sentences, has joined criminal defense lawyers and the American Civil Liberties Union in a filing that argues that mandatory sentences “are entirely at odds with what Congress sought to achieve in amending the safety-valve provision: that judges be allowed to use their discretion when sentencing low-level, nonviolent drug offenders.”

Berman said the language of the statute alone points to a broad reading that would favor defendants. “But the concern about the broad reading is that it basically covers everybody. I think it’s right that that wasn’t Congress’ intent,” Berman said, echoing arguments made by judges who sided with prosecutors.

On a court in which several justices across the ideological spectrum say they are guided by the words Congress chooses, with less regard for congressional intent, that might be enough to favor defendants. In addition, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson’s prior experience as a member of the U.S. Sentencing Commission also could be important to the court’s resolution of the case.

The safety valve has been attractive both to prosecutors and defendants because it helps obtain convictions faster and allows for more nuanced prison terms, Berman said.

Congress could clarify the law, no matter which side wins. Even if Pulsifer prevails, judges will not be obligated to impose lower sentences, Berman said. They just will not be compelled to give mandatory ones.

A decision in Pulsifer v. U.S., 22-340, is expected by spring.

United States News

Associated Press

Strong winds, steep terrain hamper crews battling Los Angeles area’s first major fire of the year

GORMAN, Calif. (AP) — Strong winds pushed flames through dry brush in mountains along Interstate 5 north of Los Angeles on Sunday, and officials warned residents in the wildfire’s path to be prepared to leave if it explodes in size again. Los Angeles County’s first major wildfire of the year swiftly grew to nearly 23 […]

3 hours ago

Associated Press

Woman holding large knife at Denver intersection shot and killed by police, chief says

DENVER (AP) — Officers shot and killed a woman who was holding a large, hunting-style knife at an intersection in downtown Denver on Sunday, police said. Officers used a Taser on the woman twice but she began advancing toward them as they tried to back up from her, Denver police Chief Ron Thomas said a […]

8 hours ago

Associated Press

2 killed when vintage plane crashes during Father’s Day event at Southern California airfield

CHINO, Calif. (AP) — Two people were killed aboard a vintage plane that crashed and burst into flames near a Southern California airfield during a weekend Father’s Day event hosted by an air museum, authorities said Sunday. The Federal Aviation Administration said the twin-engine Lockheed 12A crashed shortly after 12:30 p.m. Saturday, just west of […]

12 hours ago

Associated Press

2 people seriously injured after small plane crashes near interstate south of Denver

LARKSPUR, Colo. (AP) — Two people were hospitalized with serious injuries after their small plane crashed near Interstate 25 in Colorado on Sunday, officials said. The plane crashed in a field just off I-25 near Larkspur, about 40 miles (64 kilometers) south of Denver, after it apparently hit a sign on the highway, causing it […]

13 hours ago

Associated Press

Kansas lawmaker’s law license suspended over conflicts of interest in murder case

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — A Republican Kansas lawmaker who already dropped his re-election campaign last month after he was arrested in a traffic stop has now been barred from practicing law for at least a year for mishandling conflicts of interest in a murder case. The Kansas Supreme Court ruled that state Rep. Carl Maughan […]

14 hours ago

Associated Press

Police identify Michigan splash pad shooter but there’s still no word on a motive

ROCHESTER HILLS, Mich. (AP) — Authorities on Sunday identified the man who opened fire at a splash pad in suburban Detroit before taking his own life, but his motives remained unknown as investigators worked to determine if he left behind any hint of his plans. Oakland County Sheriff’s spokesperson Stephen Huber said the shooter was […]

18 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

...

Midwestern University

Midwestern University Clinic visits boost student training & community health

Going to a Midwestern University Clinic can help make you feel good in more ways than one.

...

Collins Comfort Masters

Here’s how to be worry-free when your A/C goes out in the middle of summer

PHOENIX -- As Arizona approaches another hot summer, Phoenix residents are likely to spend more time indoors.

...

Collins Comfort Masters

Here’s 1 way to ensure your family is drinking safe water

Water is maybe one of the most important resources in our lives, and especially if you have kids, you want them to have access to safe water.

The Supreme Court will hear a case with a lot of ‘buts’ & ‘ifs’ over the meaning of ‘and’