What is the safety valve? How does it affect sentences in federal drug cases?

The federal safety valve is a provision of law that allows a district court to sentence a defendant convicted of drug trafficking below the applicable mandatory minimum.  Here is some information about how it works.

A Powerful Legal Tool for Avoiding Mandatory Minimum Sentencing

In federal drug cases, a defendant may face a mandatory minimum of five or 10 years if the amount of controlled substances involved in the case is sufficiently high.  The mandatory minimum can be even higher if the defendant used firearms or has prior drug convictions.

The district court ordinarily has no power to sentence a defendant below the mandatory minimum, even if the judge strongly believes that such a sentence is too high.  However, if a defendant qualifies for the safety valve, the mandatory minimum sentence no longer applies (and the sentencing guidelines will be lower as well).  So how does one take advantage of this powerful provision of law?

How to Qualify for Safety Valve

The safety valve, as codified in 18 U.S.C. 3553, provides a sort of lifeline to defendants convicted of serious drug offenses who have little or no criminal history. For the safety valve to apply, the judge must find at sentencing that each of the five criteria listed in the statute are met, not the least of which is the requirement that the defendant not have more than one criminal history point under the federal sentencing guidelines.  The other criteria are (in simplified layman’s terms):

–  no violence or firearms involved;

–  no death or serious injury to any person;

–  the defendant was not a leader of a criminal enterprise;

–  the defendant must be truthful with the government about his or her criminal conduct.

Do you qualify for safety valve relief?

In some cases, it is clear from the beginning that a defendant will qualify for the safety valve. In other cases, the issue is hotly contested and a defendant may not know for sure until the day of sentencing whether he or she will qualify for safety valve relief.  For example, there may be a dispute as to whether the defendant was a “leader” or whether he or she has been truthful with the government.

In the latter category of cases, it is important to do everything possible to maximize the chances of qualifying for the safety valve, a process that commences from the very start of the case.  An experienced federal criminal defense attorney can help you put on the most powerful case possible for safety valve sentencing if your eligibility is subject to dispute.

If you need more information on this important provision of federal criminal law, please contact us for a free consultation.


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