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Understanding the Federal Safety Valve

What is a Federal Safety Valve? | Dallas Federal Defense

What is a federal safety valve in criminal cases?

The federal safety valve refers to federal law 18 U.S.C. § 3553(f), which allows a sentencing court to disregard a statutory minimum sentence if a defendant meets specific criteria. The law benefits nonviolent offenders who cooperate with prosecutors.

In theory, the federal safety valve provision was created to ensure low-level offenders in criminal drug organizations are not punished disproportionately. As we discuss in this article, exclusions can sometimes swallow the rule.

Our federal defense team at Varghese Summersett has extensive experience using the safety valve provision. If you or a loved one is facing a federal charge, particularly in the Northern or Eastern Districts of Texas, we are here to help.

the federal safety valve can make a meaningful difference on sentencing

Who qualifies for a federal safety valve sentence?

Federal safety valves are an exception to mandatory minimum sentencing laws available per 18 U.S.C. 3553(f). If the defendant meets the requirements, they are exempt from the statutory minimum sentence of imprisonment and the statutory minimum term of supervised release. The safety valve option applies to convictions under specific U.S. code sections as long as the offender meets particular conditions.
Safety valve requirements include:

  • 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;
  • The offense did not result in death or serious bodily injury to any person;
  • 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 the Controlled Substances Act; and
  • At a time no later than the sentencing hearing, the defendant has truthfully provided the government with all information and evidence concerning the offense(s) that was part of the same course of conduct, common scheme, or plan.

What are the benefits of the federal safety valve provision in Dallas drug cases?

Generally, the federal safety valve is geared towards drug crimes with mandatory minimum sentences, and the option provides two significant benefits to defendants convicted of these crimes.

  1. Lesser sentences
    The federal safety valve allows for sentences below a mandatory minimum on certain types of drug cases that carry mandatory minimum sentences. Mandatory sentences prevented judges from issuing lesser penalties even if the defendant’s guidelines were lower than the required minimum. The safety valve allows the judge to give a sentence less than the mandatory minimum.
  2. Two-point reduction
    The federal safety valve provision allows for a two-point reduction in total offense conduct. Federal sentencing guidelines act as a judge’s starting point when determining an appropriate sentence. Suggested sentencing ranges correspond to the defendant’s total offense score, and a two-point reduction in the score can significantly reduce the full sentence term.

Which criminal offenses are eligible for safety valve sentences?

Not all offenses with mandatory minimums qualify for Dallas federal safety valve relief. The criminal charges that qualify under 18 U.S.C. 3553(f) are as follows, including broad, general descriptions:
21 U.S.C. 841 – Prohibited acts
21 U.S.C. 844 – Possession of controlled substances
21 U.S.C. 846 – Manufacture, distribute, or dispense a controlled substance
21 U.S.C. 960 – Imports or exports a controlled substance
21 U.S.C. 963 – Attempt and conspiracy
46 U.S.C. 70503 – Intent to manufacture or distribute a controlled substance while on board a U.S. vessel.
46 U.S.C. 70506 – Simple possession of a controlled substance

How did the First Step Act expand eligibility for safety valve sentencing?

The First Step Act was signed into law in 2018 to expand the eligibility for safety valve relief to more defendants. The First Step Act broadened the safety valve to include the following:

  • Defendants with more serious criminal records, AND
  • Defendants convicted under the Maritime Drug Enforcement Act.

Before the First Step Act, defendants could only have a maximum of one criminal history point and still be eligible for Dallas federal safety valve relief. Also, individuals who were prosecuted for possession of drugs aboard a vessel under the Maritime Drug Enforcement Act were not eligible for safety valve relief. The First Step Act allows defendants prosecuted under the Maritime Drug Enforcement Act – specifically 46 U.S.C. 70503 or 46 U.S.C. 70506 – eligibility for safety valve relief.

Are federal safety valves the only way to reduce my sentence?

Safety valves are not the only sentence reducers available in the federal system. Other significant sentence reducers include the following:

Substantial assistance under 18 U.S.C. 3553(e): The court has the authority to impose a sentence below the established statute level as a minimum sentence to reflect a defendant’s assistance in an investigation or prosecution of another person. There is no limit to this sentence reduction based on the court’s evaluation of the offender’s assistance.

Residential Drug Abuse Program (RDAP) under 18 U.S.C. § 3621: RDAP is available for eligible defendants determined by the Federal Bureau of Prisons to have a substance abuse problem and willing to participate in a residential substance abuse treatment program.

Good Time Credit under 18 USC 3624: “Good time” reduction encourages and rewards rehabilitation and discourages rule-breaking in prison. Federal inmates are eligible for 54 days of good time credit for each year served.

Residential Reentry Centers under 18 U.S.C. § 3624: A defendant may be released from prison to a halfway house up to a year before their sentence expires. Release to a halfway house is based on Federal BOP discretion, halfway house availability, and on an individual basis. The defendant remains in federal custody and is monitored 24 hours a day while living in a halfway house.

Are you facing federal criminal charges? Call Varghese Summersett.

If you’re facing federal criminal charges in Dallas or North Texas, you need an experienced defense attorney well-versed in federal law. The criminal defense team at Varghese Summersett includes former federal prosecutors and Board Certified Criminal Lawyers with a history of fighting complex federal cases across the country. Our defense team will use the federal safety valve and any other available option to work to win you the best possible result. For a free consultation and strategy session, call us at 214-903-4000.

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