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Pulsifer v. United States

Court Type: U.S. Supreme Court
Status: Ongoing
Last Update: June 13, 2023

What's at Stake

This case involves the interpretation of a federal law that allows defendants to avoid mandatory minimum sentences for certain nonviolent drug crimes, allowing judges to impose sentences tailored to their individual circumstances.

This is a case about whether “and” means “and” or “or.” The First Step Act of 2018, a bipartisan law designed to mitigate some of the unnecessary harshness of federal criminal law, includes a “safety valve” provision that directs district courts to ignore mandatory minimums and instead impose a sentence pursuant to the Sentencing Guidelines and the individual defendant’s circumstances where a defendant is convicted of certain nonviolent drug offenses and can satisfy several additional criteria.

The Eighth Circuit interpreted that provision to render ineligible defendants who meet any of three specific criteria relating to prior crimes. We argue in our brief that the statute should be read to render ineligible only those defendants who meet all three of the criteria, not just any one of them. Courts of appeals throughout the country have been divided on the question.

The American Civil Liberties Union along with FAMM and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers filed an amicus brief in support of Mr. Pulsifer in the Supreme Court arguing that the Court should adopt the more pro-defendant interpretation for two reasons.

First, the rule of lenity provides that when a criminal statute is ambiguous, courts should adopt the interpretation that favors defendants. We argue that the Eighth Circuit erred in holding that the rule of lenity should apply only when there is “grievous ambiguity,” and not where, as here, there is reasonable doubt about the meaning of the statute.

Second, we contend that the Eighth Circuit’s decision contradicts the purpose of the First Step Act of 2018, which expanded eligibility for safety valve relief. The Act aimed to reduce excessive sentences for low-level, nonviolent drug offenders, offering further support for adopting the more defendant-friendly interpretation of any ambiguity.

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