United States v. Armstrong
Judicial Vigilance Necessary In Drug Prosecutions
Justice Stevens dissented in this case. He agreed that the facts presented to the district court showing that the defendants had been singled out because of race were not sufficient. However, he felt that the district judge did not abuse her discretion when she concluded that the facts were sufficiently disturbing to require some response from the government. Breyer pointed out that three circumstances underscore the need for judicial vigilance in certain types of drug prosecutions. First, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 established high penalties for the possession and selling of crack cocaine. One gram of crack is treated as the equivalent of 100 grams of powder cocaine, resulting in sentences for crack offenders that average three to eight times longer than for powder offenders. The prison terms for those convicted in state systems in crack cases are much shorter than in the federal system. "Finally, it is undisputed that the brunt of the elevated federal penalties falls heavily on blacks. While 65 percent of the persons who have used crack are white, in 1993 they represented only 4 percent of the federal offenders convicted of trafficking in crack. Eighty-eight percent of such offenders were black."
These troubling racial patterns of enforcement call for concern about the fairness of how people are charged with crack offenses. The federal judges in the Central District of California need to scrutinize the evidence that black defendants are prosecuted in federal court, but other races are prosecuted in state court. Breyer noted that the district judge was within her discretion to ask for information that would show what standards governed the choice between a prosecution in federal versus state court.
Breyer disagreed with the majority that the affidavits submitted by Armstrong were hearsay and anecdotal. He felt that evidence based on a drug counselor's personal observations or an attorney's practice in state and federal court can tend to show the existence of a selective prosecution. Breyer summed up his dissent by stating, "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."
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