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Sentencing in Federal Drug Cases

Due to the severity with which federal drug crimes are handled in the District of Columbia, those charged can face extremely large jail sentences. Below a DC federal drug lawyer discusses what goes into the sentencing aspect of a federal drug case, and how prosecutors can seek jail time beyond the amount of controlled substance that was actually in someone’s possession. For even more information or to discuss your case, call and schedule a consultation today.

How Is Sentencing Determined in Federal Drug Cases?

Regarding sentencing in federal drug cases, the amount of drugs in question can have a sizeable effect on the outcome. This can manifest itself in two ways:

  • As part of the charge(s) the defendant is convicted of or pleads guilty to, or
  • As part of what’s called “relevant conduct,” which is what the government can prove took place, even if the person doesn’t plead guilty to it.

For example, if a person pleads guilty to possession with intent to distribute 100 grams of powdered cocaine, if it was just that, 100 grams, that would yield an offense level of X under the Sentencing Guidelines. However, if the government can show that the total amount of transactions the person has been involved in actually amounts to two kilograms of powder cocaine, those 100 grams have now become 2 kilograms plus 100 grams, and that drastically increases the potential sentence. This increase occurs whether or not someone has pled guilty to the additional 2 kilograms of cocaine.

Sentencing For Reasonable Foreseeable Conduct

Under these conditions, it’s not just transactions of which the person was actually involved in that can impact sentencing, but also the reasonably foreseeable conduct, especially when it comes to conspiracy charges. Offense levels can get escalated based on what other people (government witnesses and investigators, for example) say was involved in the conspiracy—not solely based on what actually took place.

There are severe mandatory minimum sentences involved in drug cases, depending upon the amount of the controlled substance allegedly involved and the defendant’s criminal record. For example, someone convicted of distributing or possessing with intent to distribute 50 grams or more of methamphetamine is subjected to a mandatory minimum prison sentence of no less than 10 years. If someone has a prior felony conviction for a drug offense, the mandatory minimum sentence is increased to 20 years. There is a 5 year mandatory minimum sentence if 5 grams or more of methamphetamine is involved. Those mandatory minimums are used with devastating effect by prosecutors to extract plea agreements from people who would not otherwise plead guilty.

Safety Valve in Drug Sentencing

There’s also something called the safety valve, which, if a person does not have prior drug convictions, can get you out of a mandatory minimum sentence. There are several factors that  have to be satisfied, but these don’t involve cooperating against other people. That’s why it’s an attractive alternative for some people. It gets you out of a mandatory minimum and allows a judge to sentence you to a far lower sentence than they otherwise would have to if they were bound by the mandatory minimum sentence.

Do Mandatory Minimum’s Still Increase Penalties if They Are Not Drug Related?

There’s also something called “career offender” status. Career offender treatment means that you have, after the age of 18 years old, incurred two prior drug felony convictions or convictions for violent offenses. If this can be shown, then your criminal history score and your offense level are automatically increased drastically.

Career offender treatment doesn’t make your mandatory minimum sentence increase, but it puts you in a guideline range that normally is well above what the offense level would be for the particular offense that is at issue in court at that time.

In determining someone’s sentence, a judge must establish an advisory guideline range. United States Sentencing Guideline §4B1.1 mandates that if a defendant has the two prior convictions described above, their criminal history category is automatically increased to the highest level, a VI. The statutory maximum of the offense of conviction is then determined; pursuant to §4B1.1 if an offense has a maximum possible sentence of 25 years or more, for example, then the offense level automatically becomes 34 years. Once the judge has established the guideline range, he or she can ultimately decide to accept or reject it. It is extremely important to have a lawyer who has experience dealing with this potentially devastating section of guidelines and making convincing arguments to judges as to why they should choose to not sentence someone as a career offender.

What Are Some Flaws in The Career Offender Provision?

The guideline provision is terribly draconian, because you can have someone who committed extremely low-level felonies 14 years ago, and they can be used to skyrocket the sentencing guidelines, in a case that occurred much, much later. In addition, the way that prior felonies are determined and penalized is very complex. It’s not easily understandable, but the end results are potentially terrible for the client.

The way that we litigate these issues is by going back and researching our client’s prior criminal history extensively in an effort to make arguments that these offenses shouldn’t apply, and therefore the career offender guideline shouldn’t kick in. It is a challenge to do so, and it’s something that we educate our clients about.

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