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The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986: Defining Cocaine Base


De Pierre v United States

The term ‘cocaine base’ under the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 (ADAA) refers to all forms of cocaine base – not just “crack cocaine”.

DePierre v. United States 131 S. Ct. 2225 (2011).

Decided June 9, 2011 Supreme Court of the United States

Issue: The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 Provides for a mandatory 10-year minimum sentence for certain drug offenses involving “(ii) 5 kilograms or more of a mixture or substance containing a detectable amount of (ii)cocaine , its salts … [or] (iii) 50 grams or more of a mixture or substance described in clause (ii) which contains cocaine base”. 21 U.S.C. s841 b 1 A.  The petitioner DePierre argued that the jury ought to be instructed that in order to find him guilty of distribution of “cocaine base”, it must find that his offense involved crack cocaine. The issue was whether, taken in context, the term “cocaine base” was intended by Congress to refer to crack cocaine only or whether it referred more broadly to cocaine in its chemically basic form.

Holding: Affirming the District Court and First Circuit Decisions, “cocaine base” as used in s841 (b) (1) is not limited to crack cocaine and applies to all forms of cocaine base.

Facts: After selling two bags of drugs (weighing 55.1 grams) to a Government informant in April 2005, petitioner DePierre was indicted on a charge of distributing 50 grams or more of cocaine base under ss 841 (a) (1) and (b) (1) A (iii). At trial, the People adduced scientific evidence that the substance was cocaine base although given that no sodium bicarbonate was identified, it was not possible to show that this was crack cocaine. DePierre referred to a set of amended Sentencing Guidelines – (issued in 1993 and therefore postdating ADAA) which gave a definition: “cocaine base for the purposes of this guideline, means crack…”. ADAA had left the term ‘cocaine base’ undefined. DePierre’s proposed jury instruction at his trial gave the same definition of ‘cocaine base’ as these Guidelines. His proposed jury instruction was rejected in favor of the all-encompassing, literal reading of “cocaine base”. The US Supreme Court essentially affirmed the decision of the trial judge and the Court of Appeals Majority decision.

Legal analysis: the four key arguments of the petitioner were rejected by Justice Sotomayor in the opinion. One argument was that Congress, at the time the Statute was passed, obviously had crack cocaine in mind. The Supreme Court took the view that although public and congressional concern over crack in the mid eighties had instigated the statute, the starting point should always be interpretation of the statutory text – and that text was clearly referring to all forms of cocaine base. There was no reasonable indication that Congress intended to restrict the relevant mandatory sentencing solely to a specific form of cocaine base. An additional argument advanced by DePierre was that it would be absurd to interpret cocaine base as referring to chemically base cocaine as this would mean that an offense involving 5 grams of natural, unprocessed coca leaves would technically give rise to a mandatory 5 year minimum sentence even though the leaves would produce a miniscule amount of cocaine. This was rejected on the basis that in reality a prosecutor would in fact be unable to prove that coca leaves contain “cocaine” in its base form and therefore this hypothetical situation simply would not occur. The Supreme Court also rejected the argument that it should give due deference to the 1993 Sentencing Guidelines Amendment when interpreting the earlier statute. It had been well established that such deference was not appropriate when considering statute. The petitioner’s final argument was that the degree of ambiguity over interpretation of the statute was such that the rule of lenity required it to be interpreted in his favor. The situation so far as the Supreme Court was concerned was clear. There was no ambiguity over the wording of the relevant statue to warrant the rule of lenity being applied here.