Justices Nix Lenient Drug Sentence After 'Safety Valve' Ruling

By Elliot Weld | March 25, 2024, 3:09 PM EDT ·

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday vacated a 100-month sentence given to a woman who pled guilty to drug offenses and remanded the case to the Fourth Circuit after the justices recently clarified which defendants qualify for "safety valve" relief under a 2018 federal law.

The Supreme Court granted the government's petition to review the case against North Carolina resident Cassity Jones in light of its March 15 decision in Pulsifer v. United States, in which the justices said defendants must meet each of three conditions spelled out in the First Step Act in order to be eligible for a departure from a mandatory minimum sentence.

The office of Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar filed the petition to the Supreme Court in July, after the justices had agreed to consider the Pulsifer case, saying the justices should hold off ruling on Jones' case until after deciding Pulsifer, "and then dispose of the petition as appropriate in light of that decision."

Jones was charged in 2020 with possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine and pled guilty that October. She faced a 10-year mandatory minimum prison sentence but, according to the government, argued that she satisfied the requirements needed for a safety valve sentence. U.S. District Judge Max O. Cogburn in North Carolina told the parties he was "having a difficult time with this particular issue" but eventually decided to "bite the bullet" and find Jones eligible, according to the government's Supreme Court petition.

The First Step Act states that defendants are eligible for safety valve sentencing if they don't have more than four criminal history points, a prior three-point offense "and" a two-point violent offense on their record. Arguments in the Pulsifer case centered on the "and," with the government arguing defendants must check all three boxes to be eligible, and petitioner Mark Pulsifer arguing relief was available to defendants who check one or more of the boxes.

The justices sided with the government's interpretation, with Justice Elena Kagan writing that the law could "yield just one plausible statutory construction."

After Judge Cogburn granted Jones safety valve relief, prosecutors appealed to the Fourth Circuit, which affirmed the sentence in February 2023 since Jones had more than four criminal history points but didn't have a prior three-point violent offense. The same method had been applied by the Ninth and Eleventh circuits prior to the Pulsifer decision.

A three-judge panel from the Fourth Circuit said "the government's argument is nothing more than an exaggerated way of saying 'and' means 'or,' an interpretation we must reject."

Counsel for Jones declined to comment Monday.

The Office of the Solicitor General did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday.

The government is represented by U.S. Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar.

Jones is represented by Joshua Carpenter of the Federal Public Defender's Office for the Western District of North Carolina.

The case is U.S. v. Jones, case number 23-46, in the Supreme Court of the United States.

--Editing by Janice Carter Brown.

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