Justices Back Strict View Of Sentencing 'Safety Valve' Relief

By Stewart Bishop | March 15, 2024, 11:55 AM EDT ·

The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to let a broader class of nonviolent drug offenders qualify for relief from federal mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines, siding against certain recidivists in a ruling that focused on the meaning of the word "and" in a section of the First Step Act.

The high court's 6-3 decision on March 15 sought to decipher language in the landmark 2018 criminal justice law, which, among other things, gives judges discretion to hand down sentences below the federal minimum guidelines for certain low-level drug offenders, provided they don't have more than four criminal history points, a prior three-point offense "and" a two-point violent offense on their records.

Petitioner Mark Pulsifer's interpretation of the law, which the Fourth, Ninth and Eleventh Circuits had adopted, held that the use of "and" means defendants qualify for relief if they have convictions for some, but not all, of the included offenses on their records. In other words, Pulsifer argued that defendants are ineligible under the provision only if they've met all three offense categories.

The government argued the opposite, saying that "and" essentially makes the criminal history requirements a package deal, meaning that safety valve relief is only available to those defendants to whom none of those conditions apply, a position shared by the Fifth, Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Circuits.

In a decision authored by Justice Elena Kagan, the Supreme Court said that while both sides offer a "grammatically permissible way" to interpret the statute, the text and context of the relevant provision makes clear that it's an eligibility checklist, and therefore, all three conditions must be met for safety valve relief.

"The text and context of [the] paragraph ... as read against the guidelines, yield just one plausible statutory construction. The paragraph creates an eligibility checklist, and specifies three necessary conditions for safety-valve relief," Justice Kagan said.

Construing the provision in Pulsifer's favor creates two statutory problems, the opinion says, since it would make the first condition of not having more than four criminal history points superfluous, since a defendant with a record of the other two offenses — a two-point offense and a three-point offense — will always have more than four criminal history points.

"When a statutory construction 'render[s] an entire subparagraph meaningless,' this court has noted, the canon against surplusage applies with special force," Justice Kagan said. "That is particularly true when, as here, the subparagraph is so evidently designed to serve a concrete function."

The other problem is that potentially more serious offenders could be eligible for the mandatory minimum waiver, while people with a history of more minor crimes would not, the opinion says.

"A defendant with multiple three-point violent offenses could get relief simply because he happens not to have a two-point violent offense," Justice Kagan said.

Disposing of Pulsifer's final argument, Justice Kagan said there is only one possible statutory construction of the provision: the rule of lenity — a principle in criminal law which holds that when a statute is ambiguous or unclear, it should be construed in the way most favorable to the defendant — does not apply here.

Pulsifer in 2020 pled guilty to methamphetamine distribution and faced a mandatory minimum of 15 years in prison. He attempted to avail himself of the safety valve provision, arguing that his criminal record lacked the requisite two-point violent offense to make him ineligible.

The trial court rejected his argument and sentenced Pulsifer to 13.5 years in prison — due to an unrelated sentencing reduction — a decision that was affirmed by the Eighth Circuit.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Neil Gorsuch, joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ketanji Brown Jackson, said the government hasn't shown a lawful basis for departing from the provision's ordinary meaning.

"Adopting the government's preferred interpretation guarantees that thousands more people in the federal criminal justice system will be denied a chance — just a chance — at an individualized sentence," Justice Gorsuch said. "For them, the First Step Act offers no hope. Nor, it seems, is there any rule of statutory interpretation the government won't set aside to reach that result."

Justice Gorsuch said, in other parts of the statute, when Congress sought to convey that one trait out of many was enough to disqualify someone from safety valve eligibility, it used the word "or," no fewer than three times.

The dissent further chides the majority for putting policy concerns over the plain text of the law.

"However artfully the government frames its dissatisfaction with the text of the statute, we have neither the institutional competence nor the constitutional mandate 'to assess the relative merits of different approaches' Congress could have taken," Justice Gorsuch said.

The dissent finally takes issue with the majority's disregard for the rule of lenity, if there is a reasonable doubt about how to construe the First Step Act, the answer can't be "to adopt an interpretation that restricts safety-valve relief to thousands more individuals."

"The only permissible answer is one that favors liberty," Justice Gorsuch said.

Representatives for the U.S. Department of Justice and counsel for Pulsifer did not respond to requests for comment on Friday.

Pulsifer is represented by J. Robert Black of Black & Weir Law Offices, and Shay Dvoretzky and Parker Rider-Longmaid of Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom LLP.

The government is represented by U.S. Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar and Frederick Liu of the U.S. Department of Justice.

The case is Mark E. Pulsifer v. U.S., case number 22-340, in the Supreme Court of the United States.

--Additional reporting by Phillip Bantz. Editing by Robert Rudinger and Dave Trumbore.

Update: This article has been updated to include quotes from the opinion and dissenting opinion, along with context.

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