Neal v. United States - 516 U.S. 284 (1995)


OCTOBER TERM, 1995

Syllabus

NEAL v. UNITED STATES

CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE SEVENTH CIRCUIT

No. 94-9088. Argued December 4, 1995-Decided January 22,1996

When the District Court first sentenced petitioner Nealon two pleabargained convictions involving possession of LSD with intent to distribute, the amount of LSD sold by a drug trafficker was determined, under both the federal statute directing minimum sentences and the United States Sentencing Commission's Guidelines Manual, by the whole weight of the blotter paper or other carrier medium containing the drug. Because the combined weight of the blotter paper and LSD actually sold by Neal was 109.51 grams, the court ruled, among other things, that he was subject to 21 U. S. C. § 841(b)(1)(A)(v), which imposes a lO-year mandatory minimum sentence on anyone convicted of trafficking in more than 10 grams of "a mixture or substance containing a detectable amount" of LSD. Mter the Commission revised the Guidelines' calculation method by instructing courts to give each dose of LSD on a carrier medium a constructive or presumed weight, Neal filed a motion to modify his sentence, contending that the weight of the LSD attributable to him under the amended Guidelines was only 4.58 grams, well short of § 841(b)(1)(A)(v)'s 10-gram requirement, and that the Guidelines' presumptive-weight method controlled the mandatory minimum calculation. The District Court followed Chapman v. United States, 500 U. S. 453, 468, in holding, inter alia, that the actual weight of the blotter paper, with its absorbed LSD, was determinative of whether Neal crossed the lO-gram threshold and that the lO-year mandatory minimum sentence still applied to him notwithstanding the Guidelines. In affirming, the en banc Seventh Circuit agreed with the District Court that a dual system now prevails in calculating LSD weights in cases like this.

Held: Section 841(b)(1) directs a sentencing court to take into account the actual weight of the blotter paper with its absorbed LSD, even though the Sentencing Guidelines require a different method of calculating the weight of an LSD mixture or substance. The Court rejects petitioner's contentions that the revised Guidelines are entitled to deference as a construction of § 841(b)(1) and that those Guidelines require reconsideration of the method used to determine statutory minimum sentences. While the Commission's expertise and the Guidelines' design may be of potential weight and relevance in other contexts, the Commission's choice of an alternative methodology for weighing LSD does not alter


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Chapman's interpretation of the statute. In any event, stare decisis requires that the Court adhere to Chapman in the absence of intervening statutory changes casting doubt on the case's interpretation. It is doubtful that the Commission intended the Guidelines to displace Chapman's actual-weight method for statutory minimum sentences, since the Commission's authoritative Guidelines commentary indicates that the new method is not an interpretation of the statute, but an independent calculation, and suggests that the statute controls if it conflicts with the Guidelines. Moreover, the Commission's dose-based method cannot be squared with Chapman. In these circumstances, this Court need not decide what, if any, deference is owed the Commission in order to reject its contrary interpretation. Once the Court has determined a statute's meaning, it adheres to its ruling under stare decisis and assesses an agency's later interpretation of the statute against that settled law. It is the responsibility of Congress, not this Court, to change statutes that are thought to be unwise or unfair. Pp. 288-296.

46 F.3d 1405, affirmed.

KENNEDY, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.

Donald Thomas Bergerson, by appointment of the Court, post, p. 963, argued the cause for petitioner. With him on the briefs was Michael J. Costello.

Paul R. Q. Wolfson argued the cause for the United States. With him on the brief were Solicitor General Days, Acting Assistant Attorney General Keeney, and Deputy Solicitor General Dreeben. *

JUSTICE KENNEDY delivered the opinion of the Court. The policy of sentencing drug offenders based on the amount of drugs involved, straightforward enough in its simplest formulation, gives rise to complexities, requiring us again to address the methods for calculating the weight of LSD sold by a drug trafficker. We reject petitioner's contention that the revised system for determining LSD amounts under the United States Sentencing Guidelines requires reconsideration of the method used to determine

*Peter Goldberger and Barbara E. Bergman filed a brief for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers et al. as amici curiae urging reversal.


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Full Text of Opinion

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