Avoiding Mandatory Minimums in Federal Sentencing

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Prior to November 1, 2014, federal sentencing guidelines had a reputation for being excessive, imposing very severe sentences even for seemingly minor drug offences. However, the minimum terms of imprisonment a person convicted of a federal drug crime may receive has now been lowered following recommendations from the U.S. Sentencing Commission. This comes as a welcome change to many facing federal drug crimes. For a small group facing federal drug charges, another avenue exists to avoid the minimum sentencing guidelines altogether.

Two Ways to Avoid Mandatory Minimums

Federal law allows for departure from the standard federal sentencing guidelines in two instances: for informants, and for people who qualify for the federal safety valve for drug crimes. In the first instance, the government can make an application and recommendation to the sentencing court to sentence a defendant to a sentence that is lower than the mandatory minimum if the defendant has substantially assisted the government in the prosecution of another person who has committed a crime. Any sentence imposed by the court still has to follow certain policies.

Under the safety valve exception, a sentencing court can depart from the sentencing guidelines if a defendant satisfies certain conditions. These conditions include the following:

•      The defendant has one or fewer criminal history points as per the sentencing guidelines.

•      The defendant did not use violence or a dangerous weapon in committing the charged offense, or ask another person to do so.

•      The offense the defendant is convicted of did not result in death or serious bodily harm to another person.

•      The defendant did not play a major role in the offense, and was not involved in a criminal enterprise as defined under the Controlled Substances Act.

•      That by sentencing, the defendant has given the government all the information he or she has, if any, regarding the offense the defendant is convicted of, and any other offenses associated with it.

These kinds of exceptions to the federal sentencing scheme can provide a way for justice to be done in some cases where a defendant may not be fully culpable. For example, if a person is forced to be a drug mule, and smuggle drugs into the country, it may be difficult for the person to prove he or she was forced to be a mule. If such a person has no prior convictions, he or she may well qualify for sentencing under the safety valve. In addition, if this person is able to provide crucial information on the real heads of the operation, he or she may also qualify for a lighter sentence as an informant.

Contact a Federal Drug Crimes Attorney

If you or someone you know has been arrested for a state or federal drug crime, you need an experienced drug crime lawyer in Arlington, VA defending you in court. Contact a lawyer for a consultation on your case.

Thanks to May Law, LLP for their insight into criminal law and avoiding mandatory minimums.