United States v. Granderson

PETITIONER: United States
RESPONDENT: Granderson
LOCATION: Pomona Police Department

DOCKET NO.: 92-1662
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1993-1994)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit

CITATION: 511 US 39 (1994)
ARGUED: Jan 10, 1994
DECIDED: Mar 22, 1994

Gregory S. Smith - appointed by the court, for the respondent
Thomas G. Hungar - for the petitioner

Facts of the case

Granderson, convicted for mail destruction, faced potential imprisonment of 0-6 months under U.S. Sentencing Guidelines. The district court sentenced him to five years of probation. When Granderson tested positive for cocaine, the court resentenced him under section 3565 of the U.S. Code. The section says that if a person serving a sentence of probation possesses illegal drugs, "the court shall revoke the sentence of probation and sentence the defendant to not less than one third of the original sentence." The district court interpreted the phrase "original sentence" to refer to the term of probation imposed (60 months), rather than the 0-6 month imprisonment range set by the Guidelines. The court resentenced Granderson to 20 months' imprisonment.

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals vacated Granderson's new sentence. Citing "lenity," the court agreed with Granderson that "original sentence" referred to the potential imprisonment range under the Guidelines, not to the actual probation sentence.


United States Code section 3565 says that if a person serving a sentence of probation possesses illegal drugs, "the court shall revoke the sentence of probation and sentence the defendant to not less than one third of the original sentence." Does "original sentence" refer to the original imprisonment sentence range set by U.S. Sentencing Guidelines, or to the term of probation?

Media for United States v. Granderson

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - January 10, 1994 in United States v. Granderson

William H. Rehnquist:

We'll hear argument first this morning in Number 92-1662, United States against Granderson.

Mr. Hungar.

Thomas G. Hungar:

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

Respondent was convicted of a felony that carries a maximum sentence of 5 years in prison.

Under the Sentencing Guidelines, the presumptive imprisonment range was zero to 6 months.

Instead of sending respondent to prison, the district court imposed a sentence of 60 months probation.

Shortly after he began serving that sentence, respondent tested positive for cocaine, and the district court revoked his probation and sentenced him to 20 months in prison.

The court imposed that sentence under 18 U.S.C. section 3565 (a), which provides that when a defendant possesses illegal drugs while on probation, the court shall revoke the sentence of probation and sentence the defendant to not less than one-third of the original sentence.

The court of appeals reversed, holding that the phrase "original sentence" refers to the presumptive range of imprisonment that could have been imposed under the guidelines rather than the sentence of probation that was actually imposed.

We submit that the court of appeals erred in reaching that conclusion.

Our argument has two parts.

First, the interpretation adopted by the court of appeals and urged by respondent is flatly inconsistent with the plain language of the statute and must be rejected.

Second, once respondent's interpretation has been rejected, there are only two suggested ways to read the statute, and of those, only our interpretation is consistent with the statutory structure, context, and purpose.

Turning to the first point, our principal disagreement with respondent concerns the plain meaning of the phrase, "original sentence".

In our view, under either the dictionary definition, or the ordinary, common sense understanding of that phrase, it has only one possible meaning in the context of Federal sentencing law.

It means the initial judgment of the court specifying the punishment to be imposed on a convicted criminal.

David H. Souter:

If that's the case, then you're arguing for a sentence of probation all over again, only one-third of... with a one-third minimum of the original.

I mean, if plain meaning is good, you've got to take plain meaning all the way.

Thomas G. Hungar:

With respect, Justice Souter, we don't agree with that.

We certainly agree that we have to take plain meaning all the way, but the fact that "original sentence" means the sentence of probation that was imposed in this case does not mean that the defendant here had to be sentenced to a new sentence of probation, and there are two reasons why that is so.

We agree that the phrase, "one-third of the original sentence", if considered in isolation, has two possible meanings.

It could refer to the length of the original sentence, in this case 20 months, or to the length and the type of the original sentence, in this case 20 months of probation, and if that were the only thing we had to go on, the answer you suggest would be the only one possible under the Rule of Lenity, but we have other guides to congressional intent here.

First, and most important, is the context in which that provision, one-third of the original sentence, rests.

In section 3565(a), Congress required the court to revoke the sentence of probation before resentencing the defendant.

The word "revoke" is a term of art in Federal sentencing law in the context of probation or other forms of conditional release.

Harry A. Blackmun:

Do you agree that this is a rather poorly drafted statute?

Thomas G. Hungar:

We do agree with that, Justice Blackmun.

If Congress had more clearly expressed its intention, then obviously we wouldn't be here, but we don't believe the statute is so poorly drafted that we can't discern, by applying normal rules of statutory construction, the meaning that Congress in fact intended.

John Paul Stevens:

Mr. Hungar, following up on Justice Souter's question, I suppose at the time the statute was enacted there might well have been people still incarcerated who were sentenced to a term of imprisonment followed by a term of probation, and supposing someone was in jail on a 15-year sentence, 10 years jail imprisonment plus 5 years probation, and that had not expired at the time the statute was enacted, and that person had his probation revoked in the third year of the probation period, what would the appropriate sentence be there?

Thomas G. Hungar:

Well, as I understand the preexisting sentencing scheme, Your Honor, that would not be a possible sentence, because the way probation formerly worked was that it was an alternative to imprisonment.