Immigration Lawyers New York



Proportionality

Can the legislature set any penalty it wants for a drug crime or is its severity capped by the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of excessive punishments? Should the law enforcement employ the same methods in trying to catch a murder suspect as in apprehending a marijuana smoker?

The excerpts from opinions written by our top judges are illustrative in making out the courts' approach to these issues.

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...[T]he argument that 15 to 20 seconds was too short for Banks to have come to the door ignores the very risk that justified prompt entry. True, if the officers were to justify their timing here by claiming that Banks's failure to admit them fairly suggested a refusal to let them in, Banks could at least argue that no such suspicion can arise until an occupant has had time to get to the door, a time that will vary with the size of the establishment, perhaps five seconds to open a motel room door, or several minutes to move through a townhouse. In this case, however, the police claim exigent need to enter, and the crucial fact in examining their actions is not time to reach the door but the particular exigency claimed. On the record here, what matters is the opportunity to get rid of cocaine, which a prudent dealer will keep near a commode or kitchen sink. The significant circumstances include the arrival of the police during the day, when anyone inside would probably have been up and around, and the sufficiency of 15 to 20 seconds for getting to the bathroom or the kitchen to start flushing cocaine down the drain. That is, when circumstances are exigent because a pusher may be near the point of putting his drugs beyond reach, it is imminent disposal, not travel time to the entrance, that governs when the police may reasonably enter; since the bathroom and kitchen are usually in the interior of a dwelling, not the front hall, there is no reason generally to peg the travel time to the location of the door, and no reliable basis for giving the proprietor of a mansion a longer wait than the resident of a bungalow, or an apartment like Banks's. And 15 to 20 seconds does not seem an unrealistic guess about the time someone would need to get in a position to rid his quarters of cocaine.

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Courts of Appeals have explicitly taken into account the risk of disposal of drug evidence as a factor in evaluating the reasonableness of waiting time. See, e.g., United States v. Goodson, 165 F.3d 610, 612, 614 (CA8 1999) (holding a 20-second wait after a loud announcement at a one-story ranch reasonable); United States v. Spikes, 158 F.3d 913, 925-927 (CA6 1998) (holding a 15-to-30-second wait in midmorning after a loud announcement reasonable); United States v. Spriggs, 302 U.S. App. D.C. 54, 996 F.2d 320, 322-323 (CADC 1993) (holding a 15-second wait after a reasonably audible announcement at 7:45 a.m. on a weekday reasonable); United States v. Garcia, 983 F.2d 1160, 1168 (CA1 1993) (holding a 10-second wait after a loud announcement reasonable); United States v. Jones, 133 F.3d 358, 361-362 (CA5 1998) (relying specifically on the concept of exigency, holding a 15-to-20-second wait reasonable). See also United States v. Chavez-Miranda, 306 F.3d 973, 981-982, n. 7 (CA9 2002) ("Banks appears to be a departure from our prior decisions. . . . [W]e have found a 10 to 20 second wait to be reasonable in similar circumstances, albeit when the police heard sounds after the knock and announcement"); United States v. Jenkins, 175 F.3d 1208, 1215 (CA10 1999) (holding a 14-to-20-second wait at 10 a.m. reasonable); United States v. Markling, 7 F.3d 1309, 1318-1319 (CA7 1993) (holding a 7-second wait at a small motel room reasonable when officers acted on a specific tip that the suspect was likely to dispose of the drugs).

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United States v. Armstrong et al. (1996)
Justice Stevens, dissenting:
...[T]he 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. 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. 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. These penalties result in sentences for crack offenders that average three to eight times longer than sentences for comparable powder offenders. United States Sentencing Commission, Special Report to Congress: Cocaine and Federal Sentencing Policy 145 (Feb. 1995)

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United States v. Armstrong et al. (1996)
Justice Stevens, dissenting:
...[T]he 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. 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.

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United States v. Armstrong et al. (1996)
Justice Stevens, dissenting:
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." [United States Sentencing Commission,] Special Report [to Congress: Cocaine and Federal Sentencing Policy,] 138. 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.

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." Section(s) 2(a).

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