What is a “Safety Valve” in Federal Sentencing Law? | 18 USC § 3553(f)
Congress has enacted laws that require a defendant to serve a mandatory minimum sentence in federal prison if convicted of a certain crime. For example, if a defendant is convicted of drug trafficking of one (1) kilo of cocaine, the defendant will face a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years in federal prison. In addition, additional charges may elevate the mandatory minimum sentence more such as if the defendant is charged with possession of a firearm in connection with the drug offense.
Unfortunately, judge’s must follow the law Congress enacted. Therefore, a federal judge cannot sentence someone below the mandatory minimum sentence unless the federal prosecutor agrees to a lower sentence or the defendant is eligible for a “safety valve.” This is true even if the Federal Sentencing Guidelines suggests a lower sentence below the mandatory minimum.
A safety value is codified under 18 U.S.C. 3553(f) which allows the judge to sentence a defendant below the statutory minimum sentence – i.e., sentencing a defendant to 6 years even though the statute mandates 10 years upon conviction. In order to be eligible for a safety value, it must be shown prior to sentencing that:
- Defendant falls within Criminal History category I;
- Defendant did not use violence, credible threats, or possess a firearm or other dangerous weapon in connection with the offense;
- The offense did not result in death of serious bodily injury to any person;
- Defendant was not the organizer, leader, manager, or supervisor in the offense;
- Defendant truthfully provided the Government all information and evidence the defendant has concerning the offense.
If the defendant satisfies the above criteria, the court shall sentence the defendant below the mandatory minimum level. Accordingly, the judge will consider several factors when imposing the appropriate sentence when weighing both the aggravating and mitigating factors of the offense, and special / unique characteristics of the defendant.
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