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A Supreme Court Case Involving The Word ‘And’ Could Potentially Spare Thousands of Prisoners



Supreme Court
US Supreme Court. (Photo: Archive)

The Supreme Court is set to begin its term next week with a pivotal case that has the potential to reduce sentences for thousands of individuals convicted of drug offenses. The case revolves around the interpretation of the word “and” in a provision of the First Step Act, which was enacted in 2018.

The First Step Act features a “safety valve” provision, granting certain nonviolent drug offenders who cooperate with authorities the chance to avoid mandatory minimum sentences based on their criminal history. Specifically, the statute outlines that individuals convicted of certain nonviolent drug crimes can avoid the mandatory minimum if they don’t have more than four criminal history points, a prior three-point offense and a prior two-point violent offense.

As noted by Forbes, the legal dispute centers on the meaning of “and” in this context. The question at hand is whether an individual must receive the mandatory minimum sentence if any of these three criminal history criteria apply, or if they can avoid a harsher sentence as long as they don’t satisfy all three conditions.

This case was initiated by Mark Pulsifer, who was convicted for distributing methamphetamine. Pulsifer’s legal team argues that he should not be subjected to the 15-year mandatory minimum sentence because he only fulfills two of the requirements and does not have a prior two-point violent offense.

The Department of Justice contends that having any of the prior offenses should trigger the mandatory minimum sentence. In a court brief, they argue that such an interpretation is “common sense.” They assert that allowing individuals to avoid the mandatory minimum if they have numerous prior offenses in the three-point category but lack a two-point offense would be “arbitrary enough to be implausible.”

Lower courts have provided differing interpretations of the law. For example, a prisoner in Texas received a ten-year mandatory minimum due to a strict interpretation, which was two years longer than she might have received otherwise. Conversely, a prisoner in California avoided additional time in prison because the court applied the same interpretation as Pulsifer’s case.

The outcome of this Supreme Court case could impact more than 10,000 individuals who have been sentenced since the enactment of the First Step Act, according to Ohio State University law professor Douglas Berman, an expert in sentencing.

Oral arguments in the Pulsifer case are scheduled for October 2, marking the commencement of the 2023-24 Supreme Court term. The timing of the ruling remains uncertain, but it is expected to be delivered before the conclusion of the court’s term in June 2024.