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United States v. Armstrong


The Supreme Court's reversal of a circuit court's decision meant that the government did not have to open its files in response to the charge that African Americans were being selectively targeted for federal prosecution of crack cocaine offenses.

For three months in 1992, three informants infiltrated an alleged crack distribution ring at the behest of agents from the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms and police officers from Inglewood, California. During this time, the informants purchased a total of 124.3 grams of crack from the suspects. When agents arrested Christopher Lee Armstrong and an accomplice, they discovered more crack and a loaded firearm. Two other members of the crack ring were arrested later. Armstrong was indicted in April of 1992 in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California on charges of conspiring to possess with intent to distribute more than 50 grams of cocaine base (crack) and federal firearms offenses.

Those arrested filed a motion for discovery or dismissal on the grounds that they were chosen for federal prosecution because they were African Americans. Discovery refers to turning over for examination documents relevant to a person's defense. To support their motion, the defendants offered an affidavit from a paralegal specialist stating that of the 24 similar cases closed by the federal public defender in the previous year, all the defendants had been black.

Although the government opposed the discovery motion, the district court granted it. The court ordered that the government supply a list of all cases from the last three years that involved both cocaine and firearms offenses, identifying the race of the defendants and the levels of law enforcement involved in the investigations. The government was also asked to explain how it decided to prosecute those defendants for federal cocaine offenses.

The government asked the court to reconsider its discovery order, with federal and local agents explaining that race played no role in their investigation. A government attorney noted that they decided to prosecute because the case involved over 100 grams of cocaine base, multiple sales took place with multiple defendants, many federal firearms offenses occurred combined with drug dealing, and audio and video tapes of the activity existed. Also, several of the defendants had criminal histories that included narcotics and firearms violations. All this led the agents to believe that the defendants were a fairly substantial crack cocaine ring. The government also provided a report which noted that Jamaicans, Haitians, and black street gangs controlled the making and selling of crack.

The defendants' attorneys responded by submitting an affidavit from an intake coordinator at a drug treatment center who noted that an equal number of Caucasians and minorities were drug dealers and users. A "study" noted that of all 24 similar cases closed by the federal public defenders office in 1991, all the defendants were black. A criminal defense attorney, David R. Reed, stated that in his experience, he had never handled nor heard of a crack cocaine case involving non-black defendants in federal court and that many nonblacks are prosecuted in state, rather than federal, court for crack offenses. A newspaper article noted that federal crack defendants receive a harsher punishment than if they had been arrested for having powder cocaine and that most of them are black.

The district court would not reconsider its request that the government provide the documents. The government refused to comply with the discovery order, so the court dismissed the case against the defendants.

A three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed the decision. They stated that to get the requested documents in a selective-prosecution claim, the defendants would need to show a strong reason to believe that others in similar situations had not been prosecuted. Selective prosecution refers to prosecuting only people belonging to a certain group for a specific offense.

However, when all the judges of the court of appeals reheard the case, they affirmed the earlier dismissal, stating that the defendants were not required to show that the government failed to prosecute others in similar situations. The court also noted that the district court judge did have the power to order the discovery.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in the case on 26 February 1996 to determine the appropriate standard for discovery for a selective-prosecution claim. In an 8-1 decision, the Court reversed the court of appeals' ruling. Chief Justice Rehnquist delivered the Court's opinion.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1995 to PresentUnited States v. Armstrong - Significance, Selective Prosecution Claims, Judicial Vigilance Necessary In Drug Prosecutions, Related Cases, Further Readings