UNDERSTANDING THE "SAFETY VALVE" IN FEDERAL CRIMINAL CASES

March 3, 2012

Sentencing in federal criminal case is largely a product of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines Manual.  For those that may not know, the Guidelines were established by Congress in the 1980s in an effort to bring uniformity and consistency to federal criminal cases.  The Guidelines established, among other things,  mandatory minimum sentences for many drug conspiracy cases.

In 1994, Congress passed the "Safety Valve" statute, 18 U.S.C section 3553(f)The safety valve provision of Title 18 authorizes Courts to impose sentences below the statutory minimum if the defendant meets certain requirements in cases under section 21 USC 841, 844, 846, 960 or 963.

(1) the defendant does not have more than 1 criminal history point, as determined under the sentencing guidelines;
(2) the defendant did not use violence or credible threats of violence or possess a firearm or other dangerous weapon (or induce another participant to do so) 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, manager, or supervisor of others in the offense, as determined under the sentencing guidelines and was not engaged in a continuing criminal enterprise, as defined in section 408 of the Controlled Substances Act; and
(5) not later than the time of the sentencing hearing, the defendant has truthfully provided to the Government all information and evidence the defendant has concerning the offense or offenses that were part of the same course of conduct or of a common scheme or plan, but the fact that the defendant has no relevant or useful other information to provide or that the Government is already aware of the information shall not preclude a determination by the court that the defendant has complied with this requirement.

If I were to summarize that section in ordinary terms, in order to qualify for the safety valve the following must be true: 

1 no one was injured

2 the defendant has little or no criminal history

3 the defendant did not use a gun, violence or threats

4  the defendant was not an organizer, leader, manager or supervisor of the criminal conspiracy

5 the defendant submits to a debrief and is fully honest during the debrief, or is at least willing to honestly debrief should the government decline.

If the defendant meets the requirments, the U.S. Sentencing Guideline section 5C1.2 authorizes the court to sentence below the statutory mandatory minimum.  Understanding an utilizing the safety valve properly is one method of using the Guidelines to your advantage. 

It is important to remember that since the U.S. Supreme Court issued its Booker decision, the Guidelines are not mandatory, but advisory.  Nevertheless, the Guidelines are the starting point in Federal sentencing, and departures from the Guidelines must be "reasonable."  In fact, most sentences imposed by Federal Judges are still Guidelines type sentences. For this reason, it is very important for any Federal Criminal defense attorney to fully understand both the application fo the Guidelines and how to effectively present arguments for reasonable non guidelines sentences.