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Supreme Court ruling clears up First Step Act confusion

| Jun 24, 2021 | Drug Charges

Oklahoma residents may be aware that the First Step Act, which was passed in 2018, was a bipartisan effort to reform the criminal justice system. One of the goals of the legislation was addressing sentencing disparities stemming from a 1980s law that made the penalties for possessing crack cocaine far harsher than the punishments for possessing power cocaine. The country’s cities were coping with a surge in violence linked to crack cocaine at the time, and Congress determined that a way to tackle the problem was to sentence an individual convicted of possessing crack cocaine in the same way as somebody convicted of possessing 100 times the amount of powder cocaine.

The First Step Act

Congress reduced this drug crimes sentencing disparity in 2010, but lawmakers did not make the changes retroactive. The First Step Act offered those already in prison a way to petition for sentence reductions, but the law does not specify that all crack cocaine offenses are covered. The law applies to convictions for offenses that carry minimum sentences, but it does not specifically provide sentencing relief for individuals convicted of possessing less than 5 grams of crack cocaine as incarceration is not mandatory in these cases.

The Supreme Court rules

This created a situation where the language of the First Step Act may not accurately reflect the intentions of the lawmakers who passed it. On June 14, the U.S. Supreme Court cleared up any confusion when it ruled in a case involving a Florida man who was sentenced to more than 15 years in prison in 2008 for possessing less than five grams of crack cocaine. The justices ruled that the man was not entitled to sentencing relief because he was convicted of an offense not covered by the First Step Act.

Drug crime penalties

This case reveals that the penalties for possessing even small quantities of illegal drugs can be severe, but proving guilt beyond reasonable doubt is not always straightforward in these cases. This is because drugs seized by police may be inadmissible if rights protected by the Fourth Amendment were violated. If you are charged with drug possession, an experienced criminal defense attorney could seek to have the evidence against you excluded and the charges dismissed if police officers lacked the required probable cause to conduct a warrantless search or obtain a search warrant.