Sixth Circuit Tackles Another Crack Cocaine Case


U.S. v. Hughes

In another confusing and unfortunate case involving the Fair Sentencing Act, the Sixth Circuit recently ruled against a man who had been convicted of possession with intent to distribute more than 50 grams of crack cocaine. The case of Albert Hughes shows how the FSA, which Congress designed to eliminate the racially motivated disparities between crack and powder cocaine drug crimes, has been applied haphazardly and is in serious need of clarification.

The case began back in 2009 when Hughes was originally given a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in prison for the crack offense and an additional five-year enhancement for possession of a firearm. For a variety of reasons Hughes’ case was overturned and subjected to resentencing several years later, a problem that led to the main issue of the case.

When Hughes was originally sentenced the FSA had not yet been passed. However, by the time he was resentenced in 2011, the FSA had been enacted. Hughes argued that because the new law had been enacted four months earlier, he should be sentenced according to the terms of the legislation. This would have a substantial impact on Hughes given that the new law included a five-year mandatory minimum for his crack possession charge as opposed to the original 10-year mandatory minimum.

The district court disagreed with Hughes and decided to sentence him to the 10-year mandatory minimum contained in the pre-FSA laws. The Court said that longstanding federal law is clear that a crime’s penalties are normally those on the books when the crime is committed.

Hughes then appealed the case to the Sixth Circuit, hoping to convince the Court to overturn the harsher sentencing in favor of the rules that were in place at the time he was sentenced in 2011. In an unusual twist, the government, which initially argued against Hughes’ request, actually switched its position and filed a brief supporting Hughes, saying that the Sixth Circuit should vacate the district court’s order and remand Hughes’ case for resentencing under the FSA. Rather than take this as an important signal to reconsider the case, the Sixth Circuit instead ordered a third party that had filed a brief supporting the district court’s opinion to argue the matter.

Unfortunately, the Sixth Circuit ultimately held that pre-FSA laws should apply to Hughes’ case. The Court found that the when a person is subject to resentencing, he or she must face those penalties that were in effect on the date of the previous sentencing. The Sixth Circuit panel said that it is not the Court’s job to correct the unjust sentencing scheme that existed prior to the passage of the FSA, but instead to follow the laws that were in place at the time a crime was committed.

To read the full opinion, click here.