Kimbrough v. United States

PETITIONER: Derrick Kimbrough
RESPONDENT: United States
LOCATION: Earthquake Park

DOCKET NO.: 06-6330
DECIDED BY: Roberts Court (2006-2009)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit

CITATION: 552 US 85 (2007)
GRANTED: Jun 11, 2007
ARGUED: Oct 02, 2007
DECIDED: Dec 10, 2007

Michael R. Dreeben - on behalf of the Respondent
Michael S. Nachmanoff - on behalf of the Petitioner

Facts of the case

In 1986, during the Reagan administration's anti-drug initiative, Congress enacted a federal sentencing policy of punishing crimes involving crack cocaine at a 100-to-1 ratio compared to crimes involving powder cocaine. For example, the sentencing guidelines prescribe the same sentence for a defendant convicted of dealing 500 grams of powder cocaine as they do for a defendant convicted of dealing only five grams of crack cocaine. Congress declined to repeal the 100-to-1 ratio despite the U.S. Sentencing Commission's contention that the ratio led to exaggerated sentences for crack dealers.

Derrick Kimbrough pleaded guilty to distributing fifty or more grams of crack cocaine, along with other drug-and firearm-related offenses. The federal sentencing guidelines prescribed a sentence of between 19 and 22.5 years, but the district court judge considered this sentence "ridiculous." Citing the Sentencing Commission's reports, the judge decided to depart from the 100-to-1 ratio and hand down a sentence of 15 years. Since the Supreme Court's decision in United States v. Booker the sentencing guidelines have been advisory only, but the guidelines range is still among the factors a court must consider before handing down a reasonable sentence.

On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit rejected the below-guidelines sentence as unreasonable. The Fourth Circuit ruled that trial judges act unreasonably when they depart from the guidelines on the basis of a disagreement with a congressional sentencing policy. Therefore, judges cannot hand down below-guidelines sentences merely in order to avoid the sentencing disparity caused by the 100-to-1 ratio.


  1. When imposing a sentence for distributing crack cocaine, may a District Court judge consider the impact of the 100-to-1 crack/powder ratio and the Sentencing Commission's view that the ratio leads to exaggerated sentences for crimes involving crack cocaine?

  2. May a District Court judge, in an effort to avoid a sentencing disparity, impose a sentence that is below the range recommended by the 100-to-1 crack/powder ratio in the Guidelines?

Media for Kimbrough v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - October 02, 2007 in Kimbrough v. United States

Audio Transcription for Opinion Announcement - December 10, 2007 in Kimbrough v. United States

John G. Roberts, Jr.:

Justice Ginsburg has the opinion for the Court this morning in case 06-6330, Kimbrough versus United States.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

In prescribing sentences for cocaine trafficking offenses, the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines set 100-to-1 powder/crack ratio.

Thus, a dealer in crack cocaine was subject to the same sentence range as a dealer in a 100 times more powder cocaine.

Our 2005 decision in Booker v. United States rendered the once mandatory guidelines effectively advisory and adopted a reasonableness standard for appellate review of District Court sentences.

We decide today whether that appellate review standard can be met when a district judge imposes a sentence reflecting her disagreement with the 100-to-1 powder/crack ratio as implemented in the Guidelines.

Derrick Kimbrough, defendant below, petitioner here, pleaded guilty to trafficking in crack cocaine based on the 100-to-1, the Guidelines called for a sentence between 228 and 270 months.

The District Court however determined that a sentence within that range would be greater than necessary to accomplish the basic objectives of sentencing Congress stated in 18 U.S.C. 3553(a).

The statutory minimum sentence of 180 months, the District Court concluded, sufficed to satisfy the sentencing objectives Congress specified.

On the Government's appeal, the Fourth Circuit reversed.

A sentence outside the Guidelines range is per se unreasonable, the Court of Appeals held when it is based as Kimbrough sentence in part was on the district court’s disagreement with the sentencing disparity for crack and powder cocaine offenses.

We reverse the Court of Appeals judgment.

Under Booker, all guidelines are advisory only.

The Fourth Circuit erred in treating the cocaine guidelines as effectively mandatory.

The crack/powder disparity originated in the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 which imposed minimum sentences for drug trafficking crimes.

Congress apparently believed that crack cocaine was significantly more dangerous than powder cocaine and thus treated every gram of crack as equivalent of 100 grams of powder.

In setting Guidelines ranges for cocaine offenses, the Sentencing Commission did not follow its usual empirical approach.

Instead, it simply used the statutory 100-to-1 ratio.

Later research and experience however led the Commission to report that a crack/powder disparity so large, rests on erroneous assumptions about the relative dangerousness of the two forms of the drug.

The Government primarily contends that the Guidelines implementing the 100-to-1 ratio are an exception to the post Booker advisory only character of the Guidelines.

Congress’ use of the 100-to-1 ratio in the 1986 Act, the Government urges, effectively bars sentencing courts from failing to adhere in all respects to that ratio.

We disagree.

As explained in today's opinion, the 1986 Act mandates only maximum and minimum sentences.

It says nothing about appropriate sentences within those statutory ranges.

The District Judge in this case determined that the statutory minimum of 15 years, not the Guidelines bottom of 19-and-a-half years was the appropriate prison term for Kimbrough.

In so ruling, the District Court both homed in on the particular circumstances of Kimbrough's case and accorded weight to the Sentencing Commission's reports showing that the crack/powder disparity yields unjustifiably harsh sentences for crack offenders.

Giving due respect to the District Court's reasoned appraisal of reviewing court could not rationally conclude that it was an abuse of discretion for the District Court to impose in this case a sentence four and a half years below the bottom sentence indicated by the Guidelines.

Justice Scalia has filed a concurring opinion.

Justices Thomas and Alito have filed dissenting opinions.