Court Rejects Harsh Federal Drug Sentencing Guideline as Scientifically Unjustified

July 15, 2011 3:35 pm

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ACLU Successfully Argued the Guideline for Ecstasy Is Based on Outdated Science, Leading to Excessive Prison Sentences

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NEW YORK – A federal judge today rejected the federal sentencing guideline for Ecstasy, finding it to be based on “selective and incomplete” evidence and ruling that it punishes Ecstasy-related crimes far more harshly than is scientifically justified.

The American Civil Liberties Union, during a two-day hearing in December, presented U.S. District Court Judge William H. Pauley III with scientific evidence from expert witnesses demonstrating that the federal sentencing guideline for Ecstasy is flawed.

Today’s decision comes in the case of Sean McCarthy, who previously pleaded guilty to a single count of conspiracy to possess and distribute Ecstasy. In sentencing McCarthy to 26 months in federal prison as opposed to the 63 to 78 months recommended under the flawed guidelines established in 2001 by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, Pauley issued the first federal court opinion rejecting the federal sentencing guideline for Ecstasy.

“We commend Judge Pauley for recognizing that the 10-year-old sentencing guideline for Ecstasy is based on flawed assumptions and repudiated science,” said Scott Michelman, staff attorney with the ACLU Criminal Law Reform Project. “Unnecessarily punitive drug sentencing guidelines play a major role in exacerbating our nation’s costly problem of overincarceration, and we urge the U.S. Sentencing Commission to undertake a thorough and scientifically grounded re-evaluation of all drug guidelines.”

In his written opinion, issued May 19 in anticipation of today’s sentencing, Pauley found that the Ecstasy guideline established in 2001 would “give rise to a sentence that is greater than necessary to serve the objectives of sentencing.” The repudiated guideline resulted from a congressional directive in the Ecstasy Anti-Proliferation Act of 2000, which directed the Sentencing Commission to review and increase the penalty for any offense related to the trafficking or distribution of Ecstasy. Although the Commission held hearings at that time, Pauley found that the Commission engaged in “opportunistic rummaging” through the scientific evidence.

Pauley’s ruling is part of a growing trend of federal judges rejecting the scientific basis for the Ecstasy guideline. In another ACLU case in March, a federal judge in Seattle rejected the Ecstasy guideline on similar grounds without written opinion.

“The harshness of the Ecstasy guideline affects hundreds of defendants each year in the federal system,” said Michelman. “We are gratified that courageous and thoughtful jurists are addressing this problem, and we hope today’s decision will encourage more judges to take a hard look at this issue.”

McCarthy, who had no previous criminal history, served 14 months in federal prison before being released in December while awaiting sentencing. Since his release, he has acquired a job as a home health care nurse in San Diego, regularly volunteers with the homeless in his community and cares for his ailing father.

A copy of Pauley’s opinion is available online at:

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