RESPONDENT: United States
LOCATION: U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts
DOCKET NO.: 09-1533
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit
CITATION: 564 US (2011)
GRANTED: Oct 12, 2010
ARGUED: Feb 28, 2011
DECIDED: Jun 09, 2011
Andrew J. Pincus - for the petitioner
Nicole A. Saharsky - Assistant to the Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the respondent
Facts of the case
In April 2008, a federal court jury found Frantz DePierre guilty of distributing cocaine. He was also found guilty of distributing more than 50 grams of cocaine base, which carries a 10-year minimum sentence. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison, followed by five years of supervised release. In March 2010, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit upheld the sentence, citing its past precedent. The opinion also notes that the Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth and Tenth Circuits also interpret the statute the same way.
Does the term "cocaine base" encompass every form of cocaine that is classified chemically as a base, or is the term "cocaine base" limited to "crack" cocaine?
Media for DePierre v. United StatesAudio Transcription for Oral Argument - February 28, 2011 in DePierre v. United States
Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - June 09, 2011 in DePierre v. United States
In the first case, at the time of petitioner Frantz DePierre's conviction in sentence, clause (iii) of 21 U.S.C. 841 (b)(1)(a), provided a mandatory ten-year minimum sentence for certain drug offenses involving 50 grams or more of a mixture or substance which contains cocaine base.
DePierre, was convicted by a jury of distributing 50 grams or more of cocaine base, and he was sentence to ten years in prison.
This case presents the question whether the term "cocaine base" in clause subdivision (iii) refers to the chemically basic form of cocaine as the government who argues, or whether it refers strictly to crack cocaine as DePierre would have it.
Cocaine is a chemically basic compound derived from the coca plant.
The leaves of which can be processed into a smokable paste-like substance.
When this coca paste is processed with hydrochloric acid, the result is cocaine hydrochloride, the powder form of cocaine which is most commonly snorted.
Cocaine hydrochloride is not a base.
It is a salt with a different molecular formula than chemically basic cocaine.
However, it can be converted into chemically basic cocaine by processing it with a base like baking soda, producing crack cocaine which is smoked.
Cocaine hydrochloride can also be processed with ammonia to produce a less common smokable drug known as "freebase".
Coca paste, crack cocaine, and freebase, all contain cocaine in its basic form.
We agree with the government that the most natural reading of the term "cocaine base" is chemically basic cocaine.
In arguing that the term should be read instead to mean only crack cocaine, DePierre asked so as to stray far from the statute's text, as the term "crack cocaine" appears nowhere in the statute.
Although the term "cocaine base" is somewhat redundant, from a chemical prospective, cocaine is a base.
We think Congress had good reason to use cocaine in clause (iii), namely to distinguish the substances covered by that clause from the cocaine related substances enumerated in another clause in the statute, which provides lower penalties.
At the time Congress enacted the statute, the word "cocaine" was commonly used to refer simply to cocaine hydrochloride that is powder cocaine.
And in the scientific and medical literature, if it wasn't confusing enough, the word "cocaine" is often used to refer to all cocaine related substances including powder cocaine.
Thus, the term "cocaine base" serves to delineate the precise set of substances subject to the higher penalties.
As we explain in our opinion, we are also not convinced by DePierre's additional arguments.
We do not agree that reading cocaine base in clause (iii) to mean chemically basic cocaine, renders superfluous, the word "cocaine" used elsewhere in the statute, nor does our interpretation produce an absurd result.
We are also not persuaded by DePierre's suggestion that when Congress enacted this provision, it was all -- it was solely concerned with the special dangers produced by crack cocaine.
And finally, the fact that the United States Sentencing Commission has defined cocaine as used in the Federal Sentencing Guidelines to mean "crack cocaine," does not mean that the statute in this case must be interpreted in the same way.
In some, we hold that the term "cocaine base" as used in 841 (b) (1), means chemically basic cocaine.
The judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit is affirmed.