If you’re old enough to remember when Bill Clinton was impeached, then you remember the ex-president trying to defend himself by answering a question with, “It depends on what the meaning of the word, ‘is’ is.” It doesn’t even matter here what the question was, so long as we acknowledge that once you’re haggling over the definition of basic words, it probably is whatever they say it is.
Well, now a federal court in Georgia was similarly forced to answer whether the word “and” actually means what we all think it does, and the judges’ answer (yes), could have a big impact on how people convicted of drug-related crimes are sentenced. The case involved—of course—a Florida man named Julian Garcon who caught a three-year sentence on a coke possession charge as opposed to the mandatory five-year minimum term under federal sentencing guidelines.
Under a new federal criminal justice reform law called the First Step Act—which was signed by ex-president Trump—federal judges are can hand out lower sentences than the guidelines call for as long as certain conditions are met. That’s where the definition of “and” comes in.
One condition: “The defendant does not have (A) more than four criminal history points ... (B) a prior three-point offense ... and (C) a prior 2-point violent offense.”
At issue was whether the “and” between the second and third conditions meant “and.” If so, a defendant would be eligible for safety valve relief if he or she did not have all three of the criminal history categories. If, instead, “and” meant “or,” it would mean any defendant who had at least one of the conditions would not be eligible for relief.
Fortunately for Garcon and possibly for a lot of other drug offenders with small-time criminal records, a majority of the 11-judge circuit agreed that and still means exactly what it did when we learned to talk. The ruling applies to cases under the jurisdiction of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes Georgia, Alabama and Florida.