By now, everyone has heard of mandatory minimum sentences and the backlash these draconian provisions have received not only from criminal defense attorneys like myself but also public advocacy groups, federal judges, and even federal prosecutors. But, what exactly are mandatory minimum sentences and do judges always have to impose these sentences in relation to federal drug cases?
Mandatory Minimum Sentence
A mandatory minimum sentence is a specific prison term that a person must serve for a specific drug offense regardless of other sentencing factors. These types of sentences “anchor” Federal Judges to a minimum prison sentence (usually 5 or 10 years) even if they believe a lower sentence would further the interest of justice.
For example, 21 U.S.C. § 841(A) & (B) state that anyone charged with a federal drug offense which involves amounts of 1000 kilograms or more of marijuana or 1 kilogram or more of heroin must serve at least 10 years in prison while amounts of 100 kilograms or more of marijuana or 100 grams or more of heroin mandate a 5 year sentence. These sentences, i.e. 5 or 10 years, are stated mandatory minimums within 21 U.S.C. § 841 and regardless of how the United States Sentencing Guidelines apply to the case, a judge must sentence the person to at least the stated minimum term.
But can a judge ever depart from a statutorily mandated sentence and sentence a person under the Guidelines? The answer is yes and one way of avoiding a mandatory minimum is a provision called the Safety Valve which is set forth in the Federal Sentencing Guidelines, specifically in U.S.S.G. § 5C1.2.
Safety Valve Criteria
A person qualifies for the safety valve if all of the following criteria are met: 1) the defendant does not have more than one criminal history point; 2) the defendant did not use violence or possess a weapon in connection with the offense; 3) the offense did not result in death or serious bodily injury to any person; 4) the defendant was not an organizer, leader or manager of a criminal enterprise; and 5) the defendant, no later than the sentencing hearing, has provided truthful information to the Government regarding his role in the offense. As with most defense favorable provisions, the safety valve is not applied by the court without the defendant’s lawyer making the request. Often, defense counsel can negotiate directly with the Prosecution and get the Government to agree that the Provision applies or that one of the contested criteria have been met. Once the safety valve is applied, the court is no longer bound by the mandatory minimum sentence. Instead, the court will sentence the individual under the Guidelines which often results in the defendant receiving a substantially reduced sentence.
If you are charged with a drug crime in federal court, you need to hire an experienced criminal attorney to avoid a mandatory minimum. If you need a lawyer for a criminal or Federal case, call Attorney W. Joseph Edwards (614-309-0243) who has over 25 years experience representing clients in these legal matters.