U.S. Supreme Court sides with inmate in crack-cocaine sentencing challenge

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  • Judges weighing new sentences under First Step Act can consider new circumstances
  • Gorsuch and Thomas joined liberal wing of the court in opinion by Sotomayor
  • Ruling could affect thousands of cases, petitioner says

(Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday ruled that federal judges can weigh new facts and law when considering whether a defendant deserves a shorter sentence under a bipartisan 2018 reform law that sought to reduce racial disparities for cocaine offenses.

The 5-4 decision, authored by liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor, could affect thousands of inmates seeking through the First Step Act to reduce hefty sentences for crack-cocaine crimes that disproportionately affected Black people.

The decision brought together an unusual coalition of justices, with conservative Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch and Sotomayor's two fellow liberals, Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan, joining her opinion.

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The decision favored Carlos Concepcion, who pleaded guilty to distributing crack cocaine and was sentenced in 2009 to 19 years in prison under a regimen that created a 100-to-1 disparity in sentences of crack-cocaine and powder-cocaine offenders.

Concepcion was sentenced a year before 2010's Fair Sentencing Act, which narrowed the disparity. The First Step Act, which former President Donald Trump signed into law, made those changes retroactive.

Following the First Step Act's enactment, Concepcion sought a reduced sentence, noting it was based partly on no longer being considered a "career offender" due to a separate development in federal sentencing guidelines.

Concepcion said that without the designation of "career offender" he would be entitled to a sentence of just 57 to 71 months. He also sought credit for rehabilitation post-sentencing.

A Massachusetts judge declined to consider factors unrelated to the First Step Act and denied his request for a new sentence. The Boston-based 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.

But Sotomayor said the broad discretion judges enjoy to consider all relevant information at an initial sentencing hearing carries forward to later proceedings that may alter an original sentence.

"Such discretion is bounded only when Congress or the Constitution expressly limits the type of information a district court may consider in modifying a sentence," she wrote.

The U.S. Justice Department declined to comment. Luke McCloud, a lawyer at Williams & Connolly who argued for Concepcion, did not respond to a request for comment.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh, in a dissenting opinion disagreed, saying the 2018 law only authorized judges to reduce sentences based on changes to the crack-cocaine sentencing ranges, not on other unrelated changes of circumstance.

"Congress enacted the First Step Act to provide a targeted retroactive reduction in crack-cocaine sentencing ranges, not to unleash a sentencing free-for-all in the lower courts," Kavanaugh wrote.

The case is Concepcion v. United States, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 20–1650.

For Concepcion: Luke McCloud of Williams & Connolly

For United States: Matthew Guarnieri of the U.S. Justice Department

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Nate Raymond reports on the federal judiciary and litigation. He can be reached at nate.raymond@thomsonreuters.com.