Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan

Supreme Court rebuffs drug defendant’s First Step Act application

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The Supreme Court has rejected a North Carolina woman’s request to have her drug sentence reduced under the Trump-era First Step Act.

The decision to reject First Step Act relief for this criminal defendant is expected to be followed by several more decisions denying relief after the Supreme Court laid down its interpretation of a key provision of the statute in a March 15 ruling.

The First Step Act, a bipartisan measure approved by Congress and signed by then-President Donald Trump in 2018, reformed aspects of the criminal justice system, making it easier for the courts to reduce penalties for nonviolent drug offenders.

At the time he signed the law, President Trump said it constituted “an incredible moment” for “criminal justice reform.” He singled out the sentencing reforms included in it, saying, “Americans from across the political spectrum can unite around prison reform legislation that will reduce crime while giving our fellow citizens a chance at redemption, so if something happens and they make a mistake, they get a second chance at life.”

Under the safety valve provision, 18 U.S. Code Section 3553(f), judges are allowed to ignore mandatory minimum sentences when defendants convicted of nonviolent drug offenses present only a limited criminal history. In such cases, judges can follow the more lenient established sentencing guidelines.

The safety valve provision includes three requirements related to the person’s criminal track record. Defendants are eligible for relief if they don’t have a lengthy criminal history, don’t have a previous serious offense, and don’t have a previous violent offense.

In the case at hand, Cassity Danielle Jones was convicted in federal court of possession with intent to distribute 50 or more grams of methamphetamine after entering a guilty plea. The offense is associated with a 10-year mandatory minimum prison sentence. During the sentencing hearing, she argued she was eligible for relief from that minimum sentence under the safety valve provision of the First Step Act.

In 2019, police officers arrested Ms. Jones and found her in possession of more than 136 grams of methamphetamine, according to the government’s petition filed with the Supreme Court. A federal grand jury in the Western District of North Carolina indicted her on one count of possessing 50 grams or more of methamphetamine with intent to distribute.

She entered a guilty plea. Because of the drug quantity involved, she faced a mandatory minimum prison sentence of 10 years. During the sentencing hearing, she argued that she qualified for safety valve relief under the First Step Act.

The district court found that a defendant has to have all three criminal history traits to lose eligibility under that act and used the safety valve provision in sentencing Ms. Jones. She was sentenced to 100 months in prison.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed, finding that “a defendant is ineligible for safety valve relief under [Section] 3553(f)(1) only if she has all three criminal history characteristics.”

But the Supreme Court decided differently.

The Supreme Court granted the government’s petition for certiorari in United States v. Jones in an unsigned order on March 25. The court didn’t explain its decision. No justices dissented. At least four of the nine justices must vote to grant a petition for it to move forward.

At the same time, the court granted judgment in the case without holding oral arguments. Lawyers call this process GVR—grant, vacate, and remand.

The nation’s highest court ordered that the judgment of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit be “vacated, and the case … remanded” to that court “for further consideration in light of Pulsifer v. United States.”

In Pulsifer v. United States, on March 15, the Supreme Court narrowed the reach of the Trump-era First Step Act. The justices ruled 6–3 against Mark Pulsifer, who was convicted of felony distribution of methamphetamine, finding that the safety valve provision in the statute that might have allowed him to receive a lighter sentence didn’t apply.

In Pulsifer, Justice Elena Kagan rejected the argument that not all three criteria had to be met, writing in the majority opinion in the case that according to the safety valve provision, a judge is supposed to sentence a defendant “without regard to any statutory minimum” if it determines that all three of the criteria have been met.

This meant that Mr. Pulsifer must meet all the conditions to qualify for relief. Congress “did not extend safety-valve relief to all defendants, but only to some,” the justice wrote.

In the Pulsifer oral arguments on Oct. 2, 2023, attorneys and justices had an extended discussion about whether the word “and” means the same thing in all contexts. Mr. Pulfsifer’s lawyer argued that “and” in the part of the First Step Act listing required criminal history characteristics had a meaning more akin to “or,” which would mean not all three characteristics had to be present for a defendant to qualify for the safety valve. The government argued “and” meant all three characteristics had to be present, which is the position the Supreme Court majority ended up adopting.

Approached by The Epoch Times, Ms. Jones’s attorney, Federal Public Defender Joshua Carpenter of Asheville, North Carolina, refused to comment on the Supreme Court’s decision.

The U.S. Department of Justice was asked to comment but hadn’t replied as of press time.

This article by Matthew Vadum appeared March 28, 2024, in The Epoch Times.

Photo: Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan