Sentencing in DC Federal Cases

Possible sentences in the federal criminal system range from probation to the death penalty, depending on the criminal statute for which a person is convicted. Additionally, federal sentencing can include the payment of criminal fines to the government and the payment of restitution to victims. The long-term implications of a federal sentence can include losing your right to vote and limiting your access to certain federal benefits and programs. Also, your conviction can appear on your record for many years after your sentence is completed and most federal sentences are also followed by a term of supervised released after you have been released from prison.

Due to all these potentially serious consequences, it is important that you have someone experienced with sentencing by your side to guide you through the criminal process and advocate on your behalf. To learn more call and schedule a consultation with a DC federal criminal lawyer today.

When Federal Sentencing Takes Place

However, arguments and circumstances that may impact the sentencing are considered well before the sentencing hearing, and so both mitigating and aggravating sentencing factors need to be taken into consideration before someone pleads guilty or decides to proceed to trial.

The actual sentencing hearing meanwhile happens near the end of a criminal case. A person only proceeds to a sentencing hearing after being found guilty either after a trial or after pleading guilty at which point, the judge determines a particular person’s actual sentence.

Difference Between Sentencing in Federal and State Court

One of the most unique characteristics of federal sentencing is the heavy reliance and influence of the federal sentencing guidelines. In an effort to limit the arbitrariness of sentencing and to makes sentencing decisions more consistent across the board, Congress required federal judges to sentence defendants according to the rules written in the federal sentencing guidelines.

In 2005, the Supreme Court determined that the mandatory application of the sentencing guidelines was unconstitutional in the case of U.S vs. Booker. Although the federal sentencing guidelines are no longer mandatory today, they are still highly persuasive and a very good indicator of the sentence that a particular defendant will receive in a case.  Judges must consider the guidelines in every case.

How Sentencing Differs From Other Parts of the Case

Federal sentencing proceedings are different from other parts of the case because they happen after a person has been found guilty. Unlike the other stages of a criminal case, the defendant is no longer presumed innocent. The defendant must strike the right balance between advocacy for a lower sentence and remorse for the wrongdoing.

How Are The Rules of Evidence Different?

The rules of evidence at a sentencing hearing are much less stringent than at a trial. This is likely to allow the judge to consider a much wider range of information prior to sentencing a defendant. For example, hearsay evidence is allowed to be used at a sentencing hearing. Even though the evidentiary rules are less stringent, it is still very important to maintain evidentiary credibility at a sentencing hearing.

You should always strive to have very credible evidence to influence the judge. Unverified statements or facts for the judge to consider will most likely not be given much weight by the judge.

Role of Prosecution in Sentencing

Both sides will be making arguments as to what they believe is the appropriate sentence in a given case. These arguments are governed by 18 USC 3553(a), which delineate the factors and policies the court must consider when imposing a particular sentence.

Many times the prosecutor will focus arguments on why a more severe sentence is appropriate because it will punish the defendant and deter others from committing a similar offense. The government usually make a lot of deterrence-related arguments to justify higher sentences.

The prosecutor files a sentencing memorandum and makes oral arguments to convey to the judge what they think is an appropriate sentence. They may also invite victims of the crime to speak to the judge at the sentencing hearing so that they can explain directly to the judge how the crime impacted their lives. Another tactic that prosecutors use is to get letters from the victims to submit to the court explaining to the judge how a defendant’s crimes impacted them.

The sentence in the vast majority of federal cases is determined by the judge. All the arguments are being made for the judge.

Role of The Judge or Jury in Sentencing

Primarily, it is the judge’s role to determine sentencing. The jury’s function is limited to determining guilt or innocence in every case but capital sentencing, but the judge is the one that determines most sentences. This sentence needs to be made in accordance with the factors described in 3553(a). It must also include a correct calculation of the guidelines and an explanation as to why a particular sentence is being dispensed in a case, such as why the Court is imposing a non-Guideline sentence in a particular case.

Role of a Defense Attorney During Sentencing

The way a defense attorney should approach the arguments before a judge is to fashion arguments in a manner consistent with 3553(a), which says that a sentence must be sufficient, but not greater than necessary, to fulfill the purposes of sentencing.

Therefore, the attorney should be putting together facts and speaking to medical and psychology experts, if necessary for your case, to make a credible argument that a particular sentence, like the guideline sentence, is greater than necessary to accomplish the goals of sentencing. Many times, these 3553(a) arguments are made to justify the imposition of a sentence that is below the advisory guideline range.

Defense attorneys accomplish this by filing a sentencing memo and by making arguments at the sentencing hearing. A defense attorney might also work with experts like doctors, psychologists and social workers to demonstrate to the court that a harsh sentence is unnecessary and goes beyond what is necessary to fulfill the purposes of sentencing.

Defense attorneys may also ask the family, friends, colleagues and coworkers of a client to submit character letters to the court describing the remorse and otherwise good character of the client outside of this isolated criminal event.