WHEN Christopher Lee Armstrong and four other young blacks were indicted by federal prosecutors on cocaine and firearms charges, their defense took an unusual tack: rather than a plea of innocence, they argued discrimination.
The men's lawyers told a Los Angeles district judge that all 24 federal cocaine prosecutions in L.A. the previous year were of blacks and said that the system was biased. The judge dismissed the case when prosecutors refused to reveal the basis for the charges.
This week the US Supreme Court agreed to hear the case, US v. Armstrong, the first of its kind in years to test if federal officials unfairly select minorities to prosecute.
A high-court hearing on race and bias in the criminal-justice system is of legal and social import in any year. But the Supreme Court's announcement this week is especially notable.
It came only hours before President Clinton joined with Capitol Hill's Republican majority to maintain heavy federal prison sentences for the possession and distribution of even small amounts of crack cocaine. The move was strongly opposed by the Congressional Black Caucus, which says it unfairly targets the black community, since penalties for powder cocaine - more commonly used by whites - are dramatically lighter.
Moreover, charges of unequal treatment and racism raised by the O.J. Simpson trial are still fresh, as are the concerns about black men highlighted by the Million Man March in Washington last month.
The White House decision on crack cocaine is a highly sensitive one, mixing race, crime, justice, and election-year politics.
For the first time since 1984, the president and members of Congress disregarded new guidelines by the nonpartisan US Sentencing Commission.
The new sentencing rules, which judges and prosecutors follow in deciding prison terms, would have equalized the penalties for crack cocaine and powder cocaine. Crack, which is simply powder cocaine cut with baking soda and treated to make it cheap and smokable, is heavily used in the inner city and is associated with gang activity and violence. Powder cocaine is found more often in the suburbs.
Black Caucus members were enraged at the decision to ignore the new rules. They argued in a letter to Mr. Clinton that 96 percent of crack arrests are of minorities, and that between 1988 and 1994 in Los Angeles, the only persons prosecuted for crack-cocaine sales were blacks and Latinos.
Under current federal law, which toughened during the ''war on drugs'' in the 1980s, crack cocaine carries a mandatory minimum sentence 100 times longer than the penalty for a pure-cocaine arrest. Possession of 50 grams of crack cocaine results in a 10-year sentence, while it takes possession of some 5,000 grams of pure cocaine to land in prison for the same duration.
The commission argued prison terms for the two drugs should be changed from a ''100 to 1'' basis to a ''1 to 1'' basis. In order to provide the possibility of discretion to what is normally a very rigid federal sentencing system, however, it added penalties to crack-cocaine arrests based on the circumstances of the crime.
Late last month, prisoners rioted in federal facilities in Illinois and Alabama after hearing that Congress was preparing to reject the commission's guidelines. Twenty of 85 federal prisons are still on a state of alert.
''Everybody who really knows this issue here wants to change the law,'' says a senior staffer on the House Judiciary Committee. ''But nobody wants to seem soft on crime. If [Sen. Bob] Dole says he favors a 5 to 1 ratio, what is [Sen.] Phil Gramm going to say?''
Attorney General Janet Reno supports the president's decision to reject the Sentencing Commission, arguing that the drug promotes street violence. But she has stated that the ''100 to 1'' ratio should be reexamined.
The Justice Department is using the Armstrong case to halt what it feels are a growing number of delays in ''prompt and effective enforcement'' of the law by defendants arguing discrimination. Defense lawyers will point to the vast disparity between the numbers of blacks and whites prosecuted in the federal system.
The federal-justice system does not offer the same flexibility as the state system. A five-year sentence for crack in a federal court is mandatory. In the state system, the sentence could be reduced to 10 months, or even probation.
With a mandatory five-year sentence for only five grams of crack, the federal prisons contain thousands of black males, many of whom feel their sentence is too heavy.
''At some point,'' says the judiciary source, ''you're going to have a lot of angry people coming out of prison and onto the street.''