By Christopher Zoukis

On December 3, 2013, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, sitting en banc, rejected a challenge to the federal crack cocaine sentencing regimen that had been held unconstitutional in May by a three-judge panel of the Court.  By a 10-7 margin, the full court ruled that the crack cocaine sentences handed down to two black defendants, withstood review for racial disparities under the Fifth and Eighth Amendments to the United States Constitution.  The Court also ruled that Sentencing Guidelines relief from mandatory minimum sentences provided by the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010, Pub. L. 111-220, 124 Stat. 2372, would not be applied retroactively under 18 U.S.C. § 3582(c)(2).  United States v. Blewett, Case No. 12-5226, 5582 (6th Cir., 12/3/12)(en banc).

The en banc court reversed a controversial decision by a three-judge panel of the same court that equated the federal crack cocaine sentencing regimen with “slavery and Jim Crow laws,” and vacated the sentences of two black defendants as violation of the equal protection clause. See United States v. Blewett, 719 F.3d 482, 493 (6th Cir. 2013), vacated (July 11, 2013).

The en banc court ruled that the Blewett defendants’ claim of an equal protection clause violation, due to the crack sentencing laws having a disparate effect on blacks, failed because prior decisions of that court had already addressed the issue, see, e.g., United States v. Williams, 962 F.2d 1218, 1227 (6th Cir. 1992), and that an Eighth Amendment concern over the length of their sentence were negated by Supreme Court decisional law that had upheld far more onerous punishments for drug dealing than the 10-year sentences imposed on Cornelius Blewett and his cousin, Jarreous Blewett. See Harmelin v. Michigan, 501 U.S. 957, 965 (1991)(upholding life-without-parole sentence for 672 grams of cocaine).

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By Christopher Zoukis

Prisoners who claim they were assaulted by guards in violation of the Eighth Amendment are not barred from challenging such abuse in court even if they were found guilty of disciplinary charges in connection with the incident, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals has held. Moreover, it is erroneous for a district court to rely on a guard’s written account of the incident when videotape evidence is readily available.

In overturning a grant of summary judgment in favor of a prison guard, the Court of Appeals ruled that the guard’s alleged act of slamming a handcuffed prisoner into a wall and then to the floor was an event legally distinct from the prisoner’s alleged assault on the guard moments earlier. Prison guards who use excessive force after subduing prisoners are not immunized from court oversight as a result of disciplinary infractions against the prisoner, the Sixth Circuit wrote.

Michigan state prisoner Toran V. Peterson filed suit in federal court, claiming that a prison guard identified only as “Jones” had, without provocation, pushed up on his handcuffed arms to “slam” him into a wall, then lifted him three feet off the ground to slam him to the floor. Peterson was not seriously injured but filed a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 complaint, alleging cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment among other claims.

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