Federal Safety Valve

The federal safety valve is a provision of law that allows a district court to sentence a defendant convicted of drug trafficking crimes below the applicable mandatory minimum.

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 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.

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.

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. 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.

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