Neal v. United States

PETITIONER: Neal
RESPONDENT: United States
LOCATION: North Carolina General Assembly

DOCKET NO.: 94-9088
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-2005)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit

CITATION: 516 US 284 (1996)
ARGUED: Dec 04, 1995
DECIDED: Jan 22, 1996

ADVOCATES:
Donald T. Bergerson - Argued the cause for the petitioner
Paul R. Q. Wolfson - Department of Justice, argued the cause for the respondent

Facts of the case

A federal District Court sentenced Meirl Gilbert Neal on two plea-bargained convictions involving possession of LSD with intent to distribute. The amount of LSD was determined, under both the federal statute directing minimum sentences and the U. S. Sentencing Commission's Guidelines Manual, by the whole weight of the blotter paper, or carrier medium, containing the drug. The combined weight of the blotter paper and LSD actually sold by Neal was 109.51 grams. Thus, the court ruled that Neal was subject to 21 U.S.C. 841(b) (1)(A)(v), which imposes a 10-year mandatory minimum sentence on anyone convicted of trafficking in more than 10 grams of "a mixture or substance containing a detectable amount" of LSD. After the Commission revised the Guidelines' calculation method by instructing courts to give each dose of LSD on a carrier medium a constructive or presumed weight, Neal filed a motion to modify his sentence, contending that the weight of the LSD attributable to him under the amended Guidelines was only 4.58 grams, well short of 841(b)(1)(A)(v)'s 10-gram requirement, and that the Guidelines' presumptive-weight method controlled the mandatory minimum calculation. The District Court held that the actual weight of the blotter paper, with its absorbed LSD, was determinative of whether Neal crossed the 10-gram threshold and that the 10-year mandatory minimum sentence still applied to him notwithstanding the Guidelines. In affirming, an en banc Court of Appeals agreed with the District Court that a dual system now prevails in calculating LSD weights.

Question

Does U.S. Sentencing Commission's Guidelines Manual's revised system for determining LSD amounts take precedence over 21 U.S.C. 841 in determining sentencing?

Media for Neal v. United States

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - December 04, 1995 in Neal v. United States

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument next in Number 94-9088, Meirl Gilbert Neal v. The United States.

Mr. Bergerson, you may proceed.

Donald T. Bergerson:

Thank you.

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:

In 1984, after 10 years of careful study, Congress responded to growing criticism of Federal criminal justice systems by creating the United States Sentencing Commission.

The task of the commission was to eliminate unpredictable, unequal, and unfair sentences which had marred Federal criminal law for decades.

To achieve this goal, the commission was vested with broad factfinding resources, staffed with jurists and leading experts in the sentencing field, and structured to interact symbiotically with the courts and other branches of Government so as to evolve predictable and proportionate sentencing practices throughout the Federal courts.

This case offers this Court an opportunity to define the role of the commission in such a way as to fulfill the express intentions of the Congress which created it.

Meirl Neal was convicted of trafficking in LSD in 1989.

Section 841(b) of title 21 requires a mandatory 10-year penalty for trafficking in 10 or more grams of a mixture of LSD.

At the time Mr. Neal was sentenced, neither the sentencing guideline nor the code contained a definition of the term, mixture.

In this case, and under the rule later announced by this Court in Chapman v. United States, the relevant mixture was held to consist of the blotter paper onto which the LSD was placed for purposes of sale and distribution.

Under this definition, Mr. Neal received a sentence of 16 years imprisonment.

Four years after Mr. Neal was sentenced, the Sentencing Commission conducted hearings on whether the sentencing practice used in his case could be reconciled with section 841.

The hearing was required under the commission's 1984 enabling legislation which chartered it and made numerous reference to its absolute and abiding duty to eliminate unwarranted sentencing disparities in Federal criminal cases.

Congress equipped the commission with numerous tools to achieve this result.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Mr. Bergerson--

Donald T. Bergerson:

Yes.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

--if all we had before us were the facts in this case and this Court's Chapman interpretation of the statute, would we consider the weight of the blotter paper?

Donald T. Bergerson:

If all... Justice O'Connor, if all the Court had before it were simply Mr. Neal coming up and asking the Court simply to reconsider Chapman in the absence of commission action--

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Right.

Donald T. Bergerson:

--Would you reconsider?

No.

Sandra Day O'Connor:

Well, you didn't... are you asking that we now overturn Chapman to reach the result, or are you arguing that you can leave Chapman where it is but the sentencing guidelines changes means the statute should be interpreted differently?

Donald T. Bergerson:

First of all, I am--

Sandra Day O'Connor:

It's not clear to me.

Donald T. Bergerson:

--Okay.

I'm arguing the latter, but I also believe a modification of the former is the appropriate statement of my principle in this case.

William H. Rehnquist:

Well--

--Modification of the former, to what--