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Thursday, October 31, 2013

Federal Mandatory Minimum Sentences: The Safety Valve and Substantial Assistance Exceptions

Charles Doyle
Senior Specialist in American Public Law

Federal law requires a sentencing judge to impose a minimum sentence of imprisonment following conviction for any of a number of federal offenses. Congress has created two exceptions. One is available in all cases when the prosecutor asserts that the defendant has provided substantial assistance in the criminal investigation or prosecution of another, 18 U.S.C. 3553(e). The other, commonly referred to as the safety value, is available, without the government’s approval, for a handful of the more commonly prosecuted drug trafficking and unlawful possession offenses that carry minimum sentences, 18 U.S.C. 3553(f).

Qualification for the substantial assistance exception is ordinarily only possible upon the motion of the government. In rare cases, the court may compel the government to file such a motion when the defendant can establish that the refusal to do so was based on constitutionally invalid considerations, or was in derogation of a plea bargain obligation or was the product of bad faith.

Qualification for the safety valve exception requires a defendant to satisfy five criteria. His past criminal record must be minimal; he must not have been a leader, organizer, or supervisor in the commission of the offense; he must not have used violence in the commission or the offense, and the offense must not have resulted in serious injury; and prior to sentencing, he must tell the government all that he knows of the offense and any related misconduct.

Congress has instructed the United States Sentencing Commission to report on the operation of federal mandatory minimum sentencing provisions. A majority of the federal judges responding to a Commission survey agree that the two exceptions should be expanded. A number of Commission hearing witnesses have also urged that the provisions be amended. The Commission’s report suggested that Congress consider expanding the safety valve to cover other offenses and to reach offenders with a slightly more extensive criminal record.

Date of Report: October 21, 2013
Number of Pages: 14
Order Number: R41326
Price: $29.95

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