The Supreme Court on Monday rejected an appeal challenging as racially discriminatory the federal sentencing laws that punish crack cocaine offenders more harshly than those caught with powdered cocaine.
The court, without comment, let stand the 10-year prison sentence of a man convicted of distributing crack cocaine in the District of Columbia."There is a perception among African-Americans that there is no more unequal treatment by the criminal justice system than in the crack vs. powder cocaine, racially biased federal sentencing provisions," the justices were told by lawyers for Duane Edwards.
In other action, the court:
- Agreed to clarify when people forced by federal agencies to pay civil fines can also be criminally prosecuted for the same conduct. The justices will use an Oklahoma case to review the double-jeopardy issue.
- Rejected an appeal by a Miami firefighter seeking reinstatement of a $1.3 million award he won from the city over sexual hazing by his fellow firefighters.
- Declined to consider compensating two Maryland girls whose pet ferret was killed by state health officials testing for rabies after the animal bit someone.
The appeal in the cocaine case was submitted in Edwards' behalf by John C. Floyd III, chairman of the National Bar Association's criminal law section; Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree; and Los Angeles lawyer Johnnie Cochran, who successfully defended O.J. Simpson against murder charges.
The appeal noted that it takes 100 times more cocaine powder than crack to draw the same 10-year minimum sentence for drug trafficking.
People convicted of selling at least 50 grams of crack must be sentenced to 10 years, while a cocaine powder offender gets the same sentence only if 5,000 grams or more are involved.
"Can Congress pass a law that targets young poor African-American urban males?" Edwards' lawyers asked rhetorically.
Edwards was arrested by an undercover U.S. Park Police officer after he accompanied Vonda Dortch to a 1995 meeting in which Dortch sold the officer 126.6 grams of crack cocaine for $3,400.
Edwards' racial bias argument was rejected last December when the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia upheld his conviction. "Congress has not acted with a discriminatory purpose in setting greater penalties for cocaine base crimes than for powder cocaine offenses," the appeals court said.
Every federal appeals court that has studied such a challenge has rejected it, but the U.S. Sentencing Commission favors making the penalties the same for both kinds of cocaine.
Attorney General Janet Reno opposes such a move, saying that prison sentences must reflect the "harsh and terrible impact" of crack on U.S. communities.