Tyrone Davis, who was sentenced to 18 years in prison for crack cocaine under harsh sentencing guidelines from the War on Drugs, is eligible to seek a reduction in his sentence, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on June 13.
The ACLU-WA filed an amicus brief supporting Davis in his appeal before the 9th Circuit en banc. The brief explains the effects of an egregious Drug War policy: the lengthy sentences being served because of the government’s wrongheaded distinction between crack and powder cocaine, resulting in a 100:1 crack-powder disparity in sentences. Under this disparity, distributing just five grams of crack cocaine carried the same sentence as distributing 500 grams of powder cocaine. As a result, Davis and many other African Americans have served disproportionately long stretches behind bars.
The brief urged the Court to rule in Davis’s favor as part of correcting the prior unfairness.
In its ruling, the Court essentially agreed with the ACLU’s brief, noting that in reducing the sentencing range for crack cocaine, Congress and the Sentencing Commission sought to address the problem of crack-cocaine sentences.
“The Court’s opinion underscores how unfair the old crack-cocaine sentencing was, and gives people like Mr. Davis a chance to correct that unfairness,” said Nancy Talner, a senior staff attorney for the ACLU-WA.
In 2011, the U.S. Sentencing Commission voted to apply retroactively the new Fair Sentencing Act (FSA) Guidelines, passed by Congress in 2010, to individuals sentenced before the law was enacted. The change has the potential to provide 12,000 people – 85 percent of whom are African Americans – with the opportunity to have a federal judge review their sentences for crack cocaine offenses and possibly reduce them.
But when Tyrone Davis sought to have his 18-year sentence for a crack cocaine conviction reduced, a federal district court judge in Tacoma, and later a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, denied his motion. They ruled that because Davis’s sentence was part of a special kind of plea agreement, it cannot be reduced.
The ACLU-WA contended in its brief that Davis should be able to have his sentence reduced because even when a defendant enters the kind of plea agreement involved here, a judge’s decision to impose the agreed-upon sentence is based on and informed by the sentencing guidelines in effect at the time. The law should offer relief to those serving out sentences that would not have been imposed but for ill-conceived sentencing guidelines which have since been discarded, the ACLU explained.
The Court agreed with this reasoning, and with a District of Columbia Circuit Court ruling supporting Davis’s argument, and overruled prior 9th Circuit Court rulings that went the other way. Davis is now eligible to seek a sentence reduction.
But Davis would likely be free today if he had been sentenced within the current U.S. Sentencing Guideline range for his offense of conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine—97 to 121 months.
Cooperating attorneys Theresa DeMonte and Andrew Hughes of Calfo Harrigan Leyh & Eakes, LLP wrote the amicus brief for the ACLU-WA.
The opinion is available at https://cdn.ca9.uscourts.gov/datastore/opinions/2016/06/13/13-30133.pdf