A petition for writ of certiorari filed in Robinson v. United States, No. 08-1374, asks the Supreme Court to clear up a circuit split over the meaning of a federal narcotics statutory provision. The petition and reply brief can be viewed here and here. The Solicitor General’s brief in opposition can be viewed here.

The petitioner was indicted for a drug conspiracy involving more than five kilograms of cocaine after previous convictions for felony drug offenses. Under 21 U.S.C. § 841(b)(1)(A), a person charged with five kilograms or more of cocaine, after two or more prior convictions for felony drug offenses, is subject to a mandatory life sentence. One of the issues at trial was whether Robison was a major or minor player in the conspiracy, and whether he was aware of the entire drug quantity distributed in the conspiracy. After closing arguments, the trial court instructed the jury to determine whether more than five kilograms of cocaine were involved in the conspiracy as a whole, rather than determining the individual drug amounts foreseeable to Robinson. The jury ultimately concluded that over five kilograms of cocaine were involved in the conspiracy, and Robinson was sentenced to mandatory life under § 841(b)(1)(A).

The Sixth Circuit acknowledged that courts of appeals are divided on whether the drug quantities necessary to trigger § 841(b)(1)(A) must be determined for each individual defendant. Aligning itself with the majority of circuits that have ruled on the issue, the Sixth Circuit concluded that only a conspiracy-wide finding of drug quantity was needed to calculate and impose the penalty provision of § 841(b)(1)(A). On the other side of the split are the Fourth and Ninth Circuits, which have held that a jury must find a foreseeable quantity of drugs for individual defendants before the penalty provision of § 841(b)(1)(A) can be applied.

The petition is scheduled for conference on September 29, 2009.