On June 9, 2011, the Supreme Court decided DePierre v. United States, No. 09-1533, holding that under the mandatory minimum sentencing provisions in 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(A), the term "cocaine base" means all cocaine in its chemically basic form, not just "crack cocaine."
Federal law provides a minimum 10-year prison sentence for people convicted of drug offenses that involve 50 grams or more of "a mixture or substance … which contains cocaine base," and a minimum 5-year sentence for offenses involving 5 grams or more of the same substance.
DePierre was charged with distributing 50 grams or more of cocaine base. He asked the trial court to instruct the jury that "cocaine base" meant "crack cocaine," which he had not distributed. The trial court denied the request and instructed the jury that "crack cocaine" is one form of cocaine base, and that the jury needed to decide whether DePierre had distributed any form of cocaine base, not just "crack cocaine." The jury convicted DePierre, and the trial court sentenced him to 10 years in prison, as the statute requires. The First Circuit affirmed the conviction on appeal, holding that the term "cocaine base" in § 841(b)(1)(A) referred to all forms of cocaine base, not just "crack cocaine."
The Supreme Court affirmed. It held that the term "cocaine base" means "cocaine in its base form, or the molecule C17H21NO4. That molecule is found in crack cocaine, as well as freebase cocaine and coca paste. Thus, all of those forms of cocaine fall within the term "cocaine base" in the statute. The Court noted that there is some confusion because in § 841(b)(1)(A), Congress used the term "cocaine base," which does not appear to be a scientifically-recognized term (scientific and medical literature tends to use the word "cocaine" to refer to all cocaine-related substances, including powder cocaine and crack cocaine), while Congress used the word "cocaine" elsewhere in the same statute. But the Court concluded that the only sensible reading of the statute is that "cocaine base" includes all forms of cocaine that contain cocaine in its base form. The Court rejected DePierre's argument that "cocaine base" should be read to mean "crack cocaine" because crack cocaine was the main evil against which the statute was directed when Congress enacted it in 1986. Looking to the legislative history, the Court concluded that Congress was concerned about more than just crack cocaine, and was concerned with cocaine in all of its forms.
Justice Sotomayor delivered the opinion of the Court, which was unanimous with respect to all except Part III-A, which Justice Scalia did not join. Justice Scalia filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment.