Law Office of Seth C Weston
By: Law Office of Seth C Weston

How Does a Judge Determine Sentencing in a Federal Criminal Case?

Judges handling federal criminal cases filed by federal prosecutors determine sentences for the convicted by referring to federal sentencing guidelines and/or mandatory minimum sentencing laws.

Sentencing guidelines help a judge determine an appropriate sentence based on the facts surrounding the case. Guidelines are advisory, not mandatory. This sets them apart from mandatory minimums.

The United States Sentencing Commission (USSC) was created to establish a uniform set of sentencing guidelines for federal crimes. It periodically reviews and updates those sentencing guidelines. As part of this effort, Congress created a list of mandatory minimum sentences for certain federal crimes, such as drug offenses, kidnappings, robberies, and certain violent crimes, which had to be imposed and taken into account by these new guidelines..

What is Federal Mandatory Minimum Sentencing?

Congress passed new laws establishing mandatory minimum sentences for federal drug crimes in the 80s and 90s. This was part of the war on drugs campaign. These relatively new laws require judges to impose minimum prison terms for certain federal crimes.

Mandatory minimum sentences are highly controversial. Many judges hate mandatory minimums. Retired Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy said mandatory minimums lead to injustice in many federal crime cases. But despite the debate and the displeasure of judges, the judges must abide by the law.

According to the latest statistics from the USSC, approximately half of all federal prisoners in the American prison system are serving mandatory minimum sentences. Mandatory minimums are a big part of why our prisons are so overcrowded. Additionally, the fact that defendants face severe mandatory minimum sentences can lead to unforeseen legal issues such creating incentives for defendants to take plea deals instead of going to trial. Mandatory minimums also limit judicial discretion in imposing sentences.

What Types of Federal Offenses Commonly Carry Mandatory Minimum Sentences?

Drug trafficking offenses and certain other drug crimes, such as illegal possession or manufacturing of drugs when possessing firearms often carry mandatory minimum sentences. It is not uncommon for someone convicted of drug crimes to face lengthy prison sentences as a result.

Certain white-collar crimes, such as identity theft and fraud, may also carry mandatory minimums. White-collar crimes typically involve financial harm to other entities, and the harsh mandatory minimums are meant to dissuade others from repeating similar crimes in the future.

Individuals who use firearms during the commission of certain crimes or who have prior convictions for firearm offenses may face mandatory minimum sentences.

In addition to drug crimes, white-collar crimes, and certain firearm offenses, other criminal offenses that may carry mandatory minimum sentencing under state or federal law include:

  • Armed career criminals.
  • Sexual abuse
  • Child pornography.
  • Certain assaults.
  • Kidnapping charges

How Can Defense Lawyers Help You Avoid the Mandatory Minimum Sentence?

Many criminal defense attorneys focus on avoiding the mandatory minimum sentencing for their clients. This is typically accomplished when negotiating a plea agreement. If the defense attorney can get the charges that trigger the mandatory sentence dropped, then the defendant does not face them at sentencing.

Though the mandatory part of mandatory minimums suggests that they are the default, first, a judge must determine if the law has been triggered to enact mandatory minimum sentencing. Some mandatory minimum charges only apply based upon the defendant’s criminal history. In these cases, the criminal defense attorney has a chance to make an argument for why minimum sentencing should be avoided.

Another popular strategy is to attempt some level of cooperation with federal prosecutors. By providing substantial assistance, which is explained below, it is possible to ask the judge for leniency. However, this means admitting guilt while hoping for mercy.

Another strategy to consider is the safety valve method. Recent changes in the safety valve law made it more generally applicable to defendants. However, it applies to those with minimal criminal histories or those who have substantially cooperated with the prosecution.

What Defense Strategies May Be Considered During Trial?

Before sentencing, your criminal defense lawyer is likely to attempt to help you avoid a conviction. Convincing defense strategies and arguments made at trial can lead to hung juries and acquittals at trial. With such outcomes, it would be possible to avoid the mandatory minimum sentencing.

In some criminal cases, judges have ruled that not telling defendants about mandatory minimums before they enter a guilty plea invalidates their pleas. However, this strategy only works in limited circumstances.

An experienced criminal defense lawyer will review all the evidence in your case to determine and file appropriate motions to suppress evidence that was obtained unlawfully. Many times this leads prosecutors to offer more beneficial plea agreements that may avoid mandatory sentences.

Obviously, the ideal is to avoid conviction altogether. If you’re not convicted, then you won’t have to worry about sentencing. But avoiding conviction is often very challenging. It is highly recommended that you do not proceed with your case unless you have professional legal representation in your corner. Please get in touch with our Roanoke, Virginia, law office to schedule your initial consultation today.

What is the ‘Safety Valve?’

Federal law provides a safety valve that allows courts to bypass mandatory minimum sentencing requirements for certain minor, nonviolent offenders. However, a defendant must meet five specific criteria to qualify for the safety valve.

These include:

  • Must be a nonviolent offender.
  • Must have little to no prior criminal history.
  • Must not be the leader of a group involved with the crime.
  • No death or serious injuries are allowed to have occurred as a result of the criminal offense.
  • The defendant must have fully cooperated with investigators.

What is ‘Substantial Assistance?’

In federal court, the U.S. Attorney’s Office can file a motion with the court stating a defendant substantially assisted it in investigating the case and prosecuting other defendants. It is solely up to the prosecutor to decide whether the level of cooperation was substantial, and many defendants have cooperated with the prosecutors only to find out the prosecutors don’t believe the cooperation was enough to merit filing the motion. When facing severe mandatory minimum sentences, many defendants are induced to cooperate in the hopes of getting the prosecutors to file this motion. If such a motion is filed, the law allows the Judge to impose a sentence below any applicable mandatory minimum sentence. Given the severe mandatory sentences in many cases, the system is rigged in favor of the prosecutors and many defendants decide to cooperate.

Contact Us to Schedule a Confidential Consultation Today

Mandatory minimums are a legal matter of hot debate. Some arguments suggest that such minimum sentences are bad for communities, bad for families, and disproportionately affect people of color. While, for the longest time, mandatory minimum sentences only seemed to get worse, there has been a recent pushback with proposed reforms. The surest course of action to try to avoid such a sentence is to retain professional legal counsel to represent your criminal defense.

The Law Office of Seth C. Weston has extensive experience representing defendants in complex criminal cases, including those that involve mandatory minimum sentences. To learn more about our legal services, don’t hesitate to get in touch with our law firm to schedule a confidential case evaluation today. You may reach us at 540-384-4585.