Federal Drug Case Decided by Supreme Court in Favor of Criminal Defense, Rationality

Last Tuesday, in Abuelhawa v. United States, the Supreme Court ruled that using a cell phone to make a misdemeanor purchase of drugs does not “facilitate” a felony drug distribution crime. The government charged Mr. Abuelhawa with six felony charges, one for each cell phone call, for facilitating the sale of drugs, although his two, first-time, small cocaine purchases qualified only as misdemeanors. Those charges resulted in a potential sentence of 24 years in federal prison, compared with a potential two-year sentence for two misdemeanors. Just for using a cell phone.

The government argued that Abuelhawa’s use of a phone to buy cocaine counted as “facilitation” because it made the drug dealer’s sale easier, hence violating a section of the Controlled Substances Act that makes it a felony “to use any communication facility in committing or in causing or facilitating” felony drug distribution. While at first glance, the common meaning of “facilitate” may give this impression, the result is absolutely absurd. And, as the Court points out, in any sale, the two parties have specific roles and “it would be odd to speak of one party as facilitating the conduct of the other.”

Justice Souter, in his opinion for the unanimous Court, was diplomatic in his criticism of the government’s inane argument. He called it “improbable” and “just too unlikely” because it “comes up short” and “does not follow.” The Court reasoned that the distinction Congress made in the Controlled Substances Act between distribution (a felony) and simple possession (a misdemeanor) makes it “impossible to believe that Congress intended ‘facilitating’ to cause that twelve-fold quantum leap in punishment for simple drug possessors.”

While we are still disappointed with the Court’s other criminal law decision last Tuesday, we at least take solace in that they recognized blatant government overreaching in this case.