Published on: Friday, March 15, 2024

The Supreme Court on Friday dealt a blow to potentially thousands of federal prison inmates by ruling against a convicted drug dealer seeking a shorter sentence under a 2018 law.

The issue involved how to read a “safety valve” in federal criminal sentencing laws, which allows defendants to avoid the often lengthy mandatory minimum sentences scattered throughout the federal criminal code. The safety valve requires the defendant to satisfy a laundry list of each of five separate rules.

The court ruled in Pulsifer v. United States that Pulsifer had to meet all the conditions, rejecting his argument that he could meet some of them and still obtain relief. The decision centered in part on the court's interpretation of the word "and."

Some courts had concluded the use of the word indeed means “and,” but others decided that it means “or.” A defendant's eligibility for a shorter sentence depended on the outcome. 

Justice Neil Gorsuch dissented, joined by Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Ketanji Brown Jackson.

Gorsuch complained that the court had significantly limited the aim of the First Step Act.

"Adopting the government's preferred interpretation guarantees that thousands more people in the federal justice system will be denied a chance — just a chance — at an individualized sentence. For them, the First Step Act offers no hope," he wrote.

The case is Pulsifer v. U.S., 22-340.