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No. 95-157


UNITED STATES, PETITIONER v. CHRISTOPHER LEE ARMSTRONG et al.

on writ of certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the ninth circuit

[May 13, 1996]

Justice Stevens, dissenting.

Federal prosecutors are respected members of a respected profession. Despite an occasional misstep, the excellence of their work abundantly justifies the presumption that "they have properly discharged their official duties." United States v. Chemical Foundation, Inc., 272 U.S. 1, 14-15 (1926). Nevertheless, the possibility that political or racial animosity may infect a decision to institute criminal proceedings cannot be ignored. Oyler v. Boles, 368 U.S. 448, 456 (1962). For that reason, it has long been settled that the prosecutor's broad discretion to determine when criminal charges should be filed is not completely unbridled. As the Court notes, however, the scope of judicial review of particular exercises of that discretion is not fully defined. See ante, at 13, n. 3.

The United States Attorney for the Central District of California is a member and an officer of the bar of that District Court. As such, she has a duty to the judges of that Court to maintain the standards of the profession in the performance of her official functions. If a District Judge has reason to suspect that she, or a member of her staff, has singled out particular defendants for prosecution on the basis of their race, it is surely appropriate for the Judge to determine whether there is a factual basis for such a concern. I agree with the Court that Rule 16 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure is not the source of the District Court's power to make the necessary inquiry. I disagree, however, with its implicit assumption that a different, relatively rigid rule needs to be crafted to regulate the use of this seldom exercised inherent judicial power. See Advisory Committee's Notes on Rule 16, 18 U. S. C. App., p. 761 (Rule 16 is "not intended to limit the judge's discretion to order broader discovery in appropriate cases").

The Court correctly concludes that in this case the facts presented to the District Court in support of respondents' claim that they had been singled out for prosecution because of their race were not sufficient to prove that defense. Moreover, I agree with the Court that their showing was not strong enough to give them a right to discovery, either under Rule 16 or under the District Court's inherent power to order discovery in appropriate circumstances. Like Chief Judge Wallace of the Court of Appeals, however, I am persuaded that the District Judge did not abuse her discretion when she concluded that the factual showing was sufficiently disturbing to require some response from the United States Attorney's Office. See 48 F. 3d 1508, 1520-1521 (CA9 1995). Perhaps the discovery order was broader than necessary, but I cannot agree with the Court's apparent conclusion that no inquiry was permissible.

The District Judge's order should be evaluated in light of three circumstances that underscore the need for judicial vigilance over certain types of drug prosecutions. First, the Anti Drug Abuse Act of 1986 and subsequent legislation established a regime of extremely high penalties for the possession and distribution of so called "crack" cocaine. [n.1] Those provisions treat one gram of crack as the equivalent of 100 grams of powder cocaine. The distribution of 50 grams of crack is thus punishable by the same mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in prison that applies to the distribution of 5,000 grams of powder cocaine. [n.2] The Sentencing Guidelines extend this ratio to penalty levels above the mandatory minimums: for any given quantity of crack, the guideline range is the same as if the offense had involved 100 times that amount in powder cocaine. [n.3] These penalties result in sentences for crack offenders that average three to eight times longer than sentences for comparable powder offenders. [n.4] United States Sentencing Commission, Special Report to Congress: Cocaine and Federal Sentencing Policy 145 (Feb. 1995) (hereinafter Special Report).

Second, the disparity between the treatment of crack cocaine and powder cocaine is matched by the disparity between the severity of the punishment imposed by federal law and that imposed by state law for the same conduct. For a variety of reasons, often including the absence of mandatory minimums, the existence of parole, and lower baseline penalties, terms of imprisonment for drug offenses tend to be substantially lower in state systems than in the federal system. The difference is especially marked in the case of crack offenses. The majority of States draw no distinction between types of cocaine in their penalty schemes; of those that do, none has established as stark a differential as the Federal Government. See id., at x, 129-138. For example, if respondent Hampton is found guilty, his federal sentence might be as long as a mandatory life term. Had he been tried in state court, his sentence could have been as short as 12 years, less worktime credits of half that amount. [n.5]

Finally, it is undisputed that the brunt of the elevated federal penalties falls heavily on blacks. While 65% of the persons who have used crack are white, in 1993 they represented only 4% of the federal offenders convicted of trafficking in crack. Eighty eight percent of such defendants were black. Id., at 39, 161. During the first 18 months of full guideline implementation, the sentencing disparity between black and white defendants grew from preguideline levels: blacks on average received sentences over 40% longer than whites. See Bureau of Justice Statistics, Sentencing in the Federal Courts: Does Race Matter? 6-7 (Dec. 1993). Those figures represent a major threat to the integrity of federal sentencing reform, whose main purpose was the elimination of disparity (especially racial) in sentencing. The Sentencing Commission acknowledges that the heightened crack penalties are a "primary cause of the growing disparity between sentences for Black and White federal defendants." Special Report 163.

The extraordinary severity of the imposed penalties and the troubling racial patterns of enforcement give rise to a special concern about the fairness of charging practices for crack offenses. Evidence tending to prove that black defendants charged with distribution of crack in the Central District of California are prosecuted in federal court, whereas members of other races charged with similar offenses are prosecuted in state court, warrants close scrutiny by the federal judges in that District. In my view, the District Judge, who has sat on both the federal and the state benches in Los Angeles, acted well within her discretion to call for the development of facts that would demonstrate what standards, if any, governed the choice of forum where similarly situated offenders are prosecuted.

Respondents submitted a study showing that of all cases involving crack offenses that were closed by the Federal Public Defender's Office in 1991, 24 out of 24 involved black defendants. To supplement this evidence, they submitted affidavits from two of the attorneys in the defense team. The first reported a statement from an intake coordinator at a local drug treatment center that, in his experience, an equal number of crack users and dealers were caucasian as belonged to minorities. App. 138. The second was from David R. Reed, counsel for respondent Armstrong. Reed was both an active court appointed attorney in the Central District of California and one of the directors of the leading association of criminal defense lawyers who practice before the Los Angeles County courts. Reed stated that he did not recall "ever handling a [crack] cocaine case involving non black defendants" in federal court, nor had he even heard of one. Id., at 140. He further stated that "[t]here are many crack cocaine sales cases prosecuted in state court that do involve racial groups other than blacks." Id., at 141 (emphasis in original).

The majority discounts the probative value of the affidavits, claiming that they recounted "hearsay" and reported "personal conclusions based on anecdotal evidence." Ante, at 14. But the Reed affidavit plainly contained more than mere hearsay; Reed offered information based on his own extensive experience in both federal and state courts. Given the breadth of his background, he was well qualified to compare the practices of federal and state prosecutors. In any event, the Government never objected to the admission of either affidavit on hearsay or any other grounds. See 48 F. 3d, at 1518, n. 8. It was certainly within the District Court's discretion to credit the affidavits of two members of the bar of that Court, at least one of whom had presumably acquired a reputation by his frequent appearances there, and both of whose statements were made on pains of perjury.

The criticism that the affidavits were based on "anecdotal evidence" is also unpersuasive. I thought it was agreed that defendants do not need to prepare sophisticated statistical studies in order to receive mere discovery in cases like this one. Certainly evidence based on a drug counselor's personal observations or on an attorney's practice in two sets of courts, state and federal, can "ten[d] to show the existence" of a selective prosecution. Ante, at 12.

Even if respondents failed to carry their burden of showing that there were individuals who were not black but who could have been prosecuted in federal court for the same offenses, it does not follow that the District Court abused its discretion in ordering discovery. There can be no doubt that such individuals exist, and indeed the Government has never denied the same. In those circumstances, I fail to see why the District Court was unable to take judicial notice of this obvious fact and demand information from the Government's files to support or refute respondents' evidence. The presumption that some whites are prosecuted in state court is not "contradicted" by the statistics the majority cites, which show only that high percentages of blacks are convicted of certain federal crimes, while high percentages of whites are convicted of other federal crimes. See ante, at 13. Those figures are entirely consistent with the allegation of selective prosecution. The relevant comparison, rather, would be with the percentages of blacks and whites who commit those crimes. But, as discussed above, in the case of crack far greater numbers of whites are believed guilty of using the substance. The District Court, therefore, was entitled to find the evidence before her significant and to require some explanation from the Government. [n.6]

In sum, I agree with the Sentencing Commission that "[w]hile the exercise of discretion by prosecutors and investigators has an impact on sentences in almost all cases to some extent, because of the 100 to 1 quantity ratio and federal mandatory minimum penalties, discretionary decisions in cocaine cases often have dramatic effects." Special Report 138. [n.7] The severity of the penalty heightens both the danger of arbitrary enforcement and the need for careful scrutiny of any colorable claim of discriminatory enforcement. Cf. McCleskey v. Kemp, 481 U.S. 279, 366 (1987) (Stevens, J., dissenting). In this case, the evidence was sufficiently disturbing to persuade the District Judge to order discovery that might help explain the conspicuous racial pattern of cases before her Court. I cannot accept the majority's conclusion that the District Judge either exceeded her power or abused her discretion when she did so. I therefore respectfully dissent.


Notes

1 100 Stat. 3207, 21 U.S.C. § 841 et seq.

2 Compare 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(A)(iii) with §841(b)(1)(A)(ii). Similarly, a mandatory 5 year sentence is prescribed for distribution of 500 grams of cocaine or 5 grams of crack. Compare §841(b)(1)(B)(ii) with §841(b)(1)(B)(iii). Simple possession of 5 grams of crack also produces a mandatory 5 year sentence. The maximum sentence for possession of any quantity of other drugs is one year. §844(a).

With one prior felony drug offense, the sentence for distribution of 50 grams of crack is a mandatory 20 years to life. §841(b)(1)(A). With two prior felony drug offenses, the sentence is a mandatory life term without parole. Ibid.

3 See United States Sentencing Commission, Guidelines Manual §2D1.1(c) (Nov. 1995).

4 Under the guidelines, penalties increase at a slower rate than drug quantities. For example, 5 grams of heroin result in a base offense level of 14 (15-21 months) while 10 grams of heroin (double the amount) result in an offense level of 16 (21-27 months). USSG §§2D1.1(c)(13), (12). Thus, the 100 to 1 ratio does not translate into sentences that are 100 times as long.

5 Hampton was charged with conspiracy to distribute, four counts of crack distribution, and the use or carrying of a firearm in relation to a drug crime. According to an information filed by the Government, Hampton had three prior convictions for felony drug offenses. See Information Establishing Prior Felony Narcotics Convictions (June 24, 1992). Therefore, he potentially faces a mandatory life sentence on the drug charges alone.

Under California law at the time of the offenses, possession for sale of cocaine base involving 50 grams carried a penalty of imprisonment for either three, four, or five years. Cal. Health & Safety Code Ann. §11351.5 (West 1988). If the defendant had no prior convictions, he could be granted probation. §11370. For each prior felony drug conviction, the defendant received an additional 3 year sentence. §11370.2. Thus, with three priors and the possibility of worktime reductions, see Cal. Penal Code Ann. §2933 (West Supp. 1996), Hampton could have served as little as six years under California law. Since the time of the offenses, California has raised several of these penalties, but the new punishments could not be applied to respondents.

6 Also telling was the Government's response to respondents' evidentiary showing. It submitted a list of more than 3,500 defendants who had been charged with federal narcotics violations over the previous 3 years. It also offered the names of 11 nonblack defendants whom it had prosecuted for crack offenses. All 11, however, were members of other racial or ethnic minorities. See 48 F. 3d, at 1511. The District Court was authorized to draw adverse inferences from the Government's inability to produce a single example of a white defendant, especially when the very purpose of its exercise was to allay the Court's concerns about the evidence of racially selective prosecutions. As another court has said: "Statistics are not, of course, the whole answer, but nothing is as emphatic as zero . . . ." United States v. Hinds County School Bd., 417 F. 2d 852, 858 (CA5 1969) (per curiam).

7 For this and other reasons, the Sentencing Commission in its Special Report to Congress "strongly recommend[ed] against a 100 to 1 quantity ratio." Special Report 198. The Commission shortly thereafter, by a 4 to 3 vote, amended the guidelines so as to equalize the treatment of crack and other forms of cocaine, and proposed modification of the statutory mandatory minimum penalties for crack offenses. See Statement of Commission Majority in Support of Recommended Changes in Cocaine and Federal Sentencing Policy (May 1, 1995). In October 1995, Congress overrode the Sentencing Commission's guideline amendments. See Pub. L. 104-38, 109 Stat. 334. Nevertheless, Congress at the same time directed the Commission to submit recommendations regarding changes to the statutory and guideline penalties for cocaine distribution, including specifically "revision of the drug quantity ratio of crack cocaine to powder cocaine." §2(a).