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Supreme Court Upholds "Total Weight" Scheme for LSD Sentencing, Rules Sentencing Commission Amendments Should Not Apply to Mandatory Minimums


February 1996

On January 22, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that a U.S. Sentencing Commission amendment on LSD sentencing should not be extended to applications of mandatory minimums (Neal v. U.S., No. 94-9088 (1996); Joan Biskupic, "Supreme Court Rules 'Weight' in LSD Sentencing Includes Carrier Medium," Washington Post, January 23, 1996, p. A3; for case background see U.S. v. Neal, 46 F.3d 1405 (7th Cir. 1995); "Supreme Court to Hear LSD Carrier Medium Case," NewsBriefs, September 1995, p. 12; "Supreme Court Rules on Gun 'Use' During Drug Offense, Hears Arguments in Sentencing, Forfeiture Issues," NewsBriefs, January 1996).

Meirl Gilbert Neal pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute and to possession with intent to distribute LSD. He was sentenced according to the total weight of the LSD and the blotter paper on which it was contained. The total weight was 109.51 grams but the number of doses was 11,456, thus he received a mandatory minimum sentence of 188-235 months. Later, the U.S. Sentencing Commission amended the Sentencing Guidelines to assign an arbitrary 0.4 milligram per dose weight to LSD, regardless of the weight of the carrier medium. The Commission also provided that courts could apply the change retroactively to guidelines cases. Neal applied for resentencing to 70-87 months under the change for a revised weight of 4.58 grams.

The Supreme Court had previously ruled on LSD sentencing in Chapman v. U.S., 500 U.S. 453 (1991). In that case, the Court found that the statute making distribution of a "mixture or substance containing a detectable amount" of LSD should be interpreted to apply to the entire weight of the LSD and the carrier medium for computing whether a mandatory minimum sentence is triggered.

Writing for the court, Justice Kennedy said there is no basis for applying the Commission's 0.4 milligram per dose standard to the mandatory minimums. Kennedy cited Commission commentary released with the Guidelines change, and said "the Commission seems to do no more than acknowledge that, whether or not its method would be preferable for the statute and Guideline alike, it has no authority to override the statute as we have construed it." Even if there was some basis for applying the Commission's standard, Kennedy said it conflicts with the ruling in Chapman.

Kennedy did recognize that the weight-based sentencing scheme does produce inequity. "True, there may be little in logic to defend the statute's treatment of LSD; it results in significant disparity of punishment meted out to LSD offenders relative to other narcotics traffickers," Kennedy wrote. "Even so, Congress, not this Court, has the responsibility for revising its statutes. Were we to alter our statutory interpretations from case to case, Congress would have less reason to exercise its responsibility to correct statutes that are thought to be unwise or unfair."