We're a bit exhausted by all of the crack cases, and truthfully, if we had our druthers, we'd never report on another run-of-the-mill Fair Sentencing Act case again.
Except, thanks to the Sixth Circuit, there is no run-of-the-mill. To recap their exploits, they decided one case (Hammond) that said that the Fair Sentencing Act's reduction of mandatory minimums in crack cocaine cases did not apply to those who had been sentenced before the law's passage. Simple enough.
They then ignored it in Blewitt, which was, itself, vacated a few weeks later and set for en banc rehearing later this year. We rehashed both of these cases, plus the U.S. Supreme Court's opinion in Dorsey two weeks ago, when the Sixth Circuit released two conflicting opinions on the same day: Johnson, which side-stepped Hammond, and Joiner, which abided by its binding precedent.
Yep. So when they released another FSA case today, naturally, our curiosity was piqued. Would the court follow the binding-by-default, yet oft-ignored Hammond? Or would it come out with another three-opinion, three-judges mishap like Johnson?
It was the former, thankfully. Hammond may be wrong, but with Blewitt's nonsensical opinion vacated, it defaults into controlling precedent.
In this case, Gregory Bell faced a mandatory minimum of 120 months in prison on the crack charge alone, plus an additional 60 months on a gun possession charge. He was sentenced to 180 months in 2003.
Were the FSA retroactive, his guideline range would now be 63 to 78 months. But under Hammond, it isn't. It's an unfair result, inconsistent with the FSA. Blame Congress for not clearly specifying whether or not the statute would be retroactive.
It's also the correct result, at least as far as stare decisis goes, as Hammond was a reasonable interpretation of murky law -- law that has not been clarified or changed since. In the Sixth Circuit, "[t]he prior decision remains controlling authority unless an inconsistent decision of the United States Supreme Court requires modification of the decision or this Court sitting en banc overrules the prior decision." (See also: Sixth Circuit Rules)
The Sixth Circuit will get its chance to correct the murkiness, and its prior inconsistent holdings, when it rehears Blewitt in October. You have to wonder though, why isn't the court simply holding over FSA cases until after that case has been decided?
- United States v. Bell (Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals)
- 6th Circuit: Old Sentencing for Crack is 'Whack' (FindLaw's U.S. Sixth Circuit Blog)
- Court Decides Fair Sentencing, Burden of Proof, 1st Am. Cases (FindLaw's U.S. Supreme Court Blog)