Dorsey v. United States

PETITIONER:Edward Dorsey, Sr.
RESPONDENT:United States
LOCATION: U.S. District Court

DOCKET NO.: 11-5683
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2010-2016)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit

CITATION: 567 US (2012)
GRANTED: Nov 28, 2011
ARGUED: Apr 17, 2012
DECIDED: Jun 21, 2012

Michael R. Dreeben – Deputy Solicitor General, Department of Justice, for the respondent in support of petitioner
Miguel A. Estrada – for amicus curiae appointed by the Court
Stephen E. Eberhardt – for the petitioners

Facts of the case

These two consolidated cases involve the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 (FSA) which became law on August 3, 2010. The FSA increased the amount of crack cocaine necessary to trigger the statutory minimum sentence from 5 to 28 grams for a 5-year sentence and from 50 to 280 grams for a 10-year sentence. Police caught Edward Dorsey with 5.5 grams of crack cocaine and Corey Hill with over 50 grams. Dorsey had a prior felony drug conviction, so he triggered the 10-year minimum although he was under the pre FSA limit. Both men committed their crimes before the FSA passed, but were sentenced after the Act passed. The trial court judges refused to apply the FSA retroactively.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed both sentences, holding that the relevant date for application of the FSA is the date of the crime, not the date of sentencing.


Is the FSA applicable when the criminal was sentenced after the FSA passed but the crime occurred prior to passage?

Media for Dorsey v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument – April 17, 2012 in Dorsey v. United States

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement – June 21, 2012 in Dorsey v. United States

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Breyer has the opinion for the Court in case 11-5683, Dorsey versus United States, and the related case 11-5721, Hill verus United States.

Stephen G. Breyer:

This really is a more technical matter.

Congress has provided that mandatory minimum sentences, typically five years or 10 years sentences applicable to certain offenders who possess certain amounts of drugs.

Until August 3rd, 2010, Congress’ mandatory minimum sentencing laws treated crack cocaine as far worst than powdered cocaine, indeed a 100 times worst.

That is to say, the same five-year mandatory minimum would apply to distributing five grams of crack as it did to distributing 500 grams of powder.

As of August 3rd, 2010, however, a new more lenient mandatory minimum law took effect.

That law treated crack as only 18 times worst, not 100 times worst than powder.

The question here is whether the new law applies to those who committed a crack offense before the effective date of the statute, namely August 3, 2010, but they were not sentenced until after the effective date of the statute, August 3, 2010.

So they committed it before, but they’re sentenced after.

Does the new more lenient statute apply or they have to go under the old one?

The issue is difficult because a statute that Congress passed in 1871 says that we should assume the old law applies in the situation.

To those who committed a crime before a new law’s effective date, unless the new law expressly provides that the new law applies.

They have to do the old one unless it says expressly in the new one that this new more lenient one applies to them and the new mandatory minimum law does not expressly say it applies to this pre-enactment group of offenders.

We nonetheless conclude that the new more lenient mandatory minimum law does apply to that group.


Well, for one thing as all of the Court agrees, the word expressly here does not mean that some magic form of words has to appear in the new statute.

The question basically is one of congressional intent.

It has to be at least clear whether it is clearly implied or maybe it has to be of the plain import of the statute that Congress did intend to apply the new more lenient law to those who committed a crime.

They have not yet been sentenced as of the date the new law took effect.

For another thing, another statute makes clear that to apply a new more lenient sentencing guideline to those who have yet to be sentenced as of the date of the enactment is the norm in the sentencing world.

Language in the new crack law helps us along to this same conclusion.

Further, to hold the contrary. i.e., to hold that Congress intended the old harsher law to apply to those not yet sentenced would make sentencing law in this area less uniform treating similar offenders differently and it would bring about greater disproportionality treating different offenders similarly.

Indeed, it would make matters worst in this respect, and they are important respects underlying sentencing than they were before the new law was enacted.

Finally, we can find no convincing reason why Congress would have wanted these unfair consequences.

Why would it have wanted the new law not to apply?

Why it would have wanted those results?

We couldn’t answer that question.

So, we consequently conclude that Congress clearly did intend the new mandatory minimum is to apply to those who committed a crack crime before August 3, 2010, were not sentenced until after August 3, 2010, the date the new law took effect.

We vacate the contrary judgments of the Court of Appeals from the Seventh Circuit.

We remand for further proceedings.

Stephen G. Breyer:

Justice Scalia has filed a dissenting opinion in which he is joined by the Chief Justice, Justice Thomas, and Justice Alito.