Court uses broad 'cocaine base' definition

WASHINGTON, June 9 (UPI) -- The U.S. Supreme Court Thursday unanimously adopted a broad definition for "cocaine base," meaning more defendants are eligible for longer terms.

With concern rising over drugs in general and crack cocaine in particular, Congress revised the penalties for cocaine-related substances. The 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act provides a mandatory 10-year sentence for offenses involving 5 kilograms or more of cocaine or cocaine-related material, or for offenses involving only 50 grams of "cocaine base."


Federal law also provides a five-year sentence for offenses involving 500 grams of cocaine or 5 grams of "cocaine base."

Frantz DePierre was indicted for distribution of 50 grams or more of cocaine base after selling the drug to an undercover agent in Massachusetts. A federal judge refused DePierre's request to instruct the jury that "cocaine base" applies only to crack cocaine, and DePierre was convicted and eventually sentenced to 10 years. A federal appeals court in Boston agreed with the judge.

Thursday, in an opinion written by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the court ruled cocaine base, as used in the federal law, "means not just 'crack cocaine,' but cocaine in its chemically basic form."

That basic form includes "the molecule found in crack cocaine, freebase and coca paste. On its plain terms, then, 'cocaine base" reaches more broadly than just crack cocaine. In arguing to the contrary, DePierre urges the court to stray far from the statute's text, which nowhere contains the term 'crack cocaine,'" the opinion said.


All of the other justices signed on to Sotomayor's opinion or agreed in the judgment.

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