The Sixth Circuit recently issued yet another opinion regarding the impact of the Fair Sentencing Act. This latest case,U.S. v. Bell, involved a guilty plea by Gregory Bell to crack cocaine and gun possession charges. In the case, Bell faced a mandatory minimum of 120 months behind bars on the crack charge plus an additional 60 months on a separate gun charge. Bell was ultimately sentenced to 180 months in prison.
After the Fair Sentencing Act was passed in 2010, Bell moved to have his sentence modified. The district court decided that Bell was ineligible for a modification, saying that the Supreme Court’s decision in Dorsey v. U.S. made clear that the FSA only applied to those offenders who were sentenced after the FSA went into effect.
Sadly for Mr. Bell, were the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive, as some Sixth Circuit cases indicated it might be, then his sentencing range would now be between 63 and 78 months. Under another line of cases, chiefly U.S. v. Hammond, the Fair Sentencing Act’s reduction of mandatory minimums in crack cocaine cases was found not to apply retroactively to defendants who were sentenced prior to the law’s passage. The question before the Sixth Circuit was which line of cases would prevail.
The Sixth Circuit admitted that Bell’s sentence would be eligible for a modification under the holding found in U.S. v. Blewett, a case decided earlier this year by the Sixth Circuit. In that case, the Court said that new lower mandatory minimum sentences for crack offenses are applicable to those cases where defendants seek retroactive relief for what they claim were racially discriminatory original sentences. The Court held that perpetuating these discriminatory mandatory minimums would violate the Equal Protection Clause and, as such, decided to set aside the old sentencing laws in favor of the new ones. However, the opinion noted that the Blewett decision had recently been vacated by the Court’s decision to hear the case this fall en banc.
Given that Blewett has been overturned while the court awaits a full hearing, Hammond ruled the day with regards to the Bell case. In Hammond, the Sixth Circuit denied a defendant’s attempt to have his crack cocaine sentence modified downward. Because of the ruling in Hammond, Bell’s request for a modification was also rejected. Defendants across Tennessee and the rest of the Sixth Circuit eagerly await a final ruling in Blewett, an important case that will hopefully bring clarity to the confusing issue of FSA applicability.
To read the full opinion, click here.
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