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Avoiding A Federal Mandatory Minimum Drug Sentence

Judge imposed a mandatory minimum drug sentence in federal court Tucson Arizona

If you are charged with a federal drug offense, even if it is your first offense, you could be facing a mandatory minimum prison sentence.  This means that the judge has no choice but to sentence you to a minimum term of imprisonment.  Whether a mandatory minimum sentence applies depends on the specific crime charged, as well as the type and quantity of the drug alleged.  Mandatory minimums don’t apply to simple possession cases (although it is unlikely that you could successfully claim simple possession for personal use given the quantities listed below), but do apply to manufacturing, transporting, distributing, and possessing with intent to distribute.  They also apply if you are charged with being involved in a conspiracy to commit any of those crimes.

There is a mandatory minimum sentence of 5 years for first offenses involving more than:

  • 1 grams of LSD
  • 5 grams of methamphetamine if pure (or 50 grams if mixed)
  • 10 grams of PCP if pure (or 100 grams if mixed)
  • 28 grams of crack cocaine
  • 1oo grams of heroin
  • 500 grams of cocaine
  • 100 kilograms of marijuana (or 100 marijuana plant)

The mandatory minimum sentence increases to 10 years for the following quantities:

  • 10 grams of LSD
  • 50 grams of methamphetamine if pure (or 500 grams if mixed)
  • 100 grams of PCP if pure (or 1 kilogram if mixed)
  • 280 grams of crack cocaine
  • 1 kilogram of heroin
  • 5 kilograms of cocaine
  • 1000 kilograms of marijuana (or 1000 marijuana plants)

These mandatory minimum sentences increase to 10 years and 20 years if you have a prior conviction that is similar.  These mandatory minimum sentences can result in serious injustice, but they are the law and a judge has no choice but to impose them.  The only way around these sentences, other than through cooperation with the government (which is a whole other topic for another day), is through the “safety valve” provision.

Safety Valve

The “safety valve” is a limited exception to the mandatory minimum sentencing laws.  It applies only to first-time, non-violent drug offenders.  It allows a judge to sentence a person below the mandatory minimum term under the following conditions:

  1. The person has zero or minimal criminal history.  Only one criminal history point is allowed to be eligible.  Basically, that means that you might still be eligible if you have one prior conviction (felony or misdemeanor), for which you received a sentence of less than 60 days in jail, in the last five years.
  2. The person did not use violence or possess a weapon in connection with the offense.
  3. The offense did not result in death or serious physical injury.
  4. The person was not an organizer, leader, manager, or supervisor of others involved in the offense, and was not engaged in a continuing criminal enterprise.
  5. The person provides the government with a truthful statement containing all the information he or she has about the offense prior to being sentenced.

If you qualify for the safety valve exception, then the judge is free to impose whatever sentence he or she thinks is appropriate after consulting the sentencing guidelines and considering statutory sentencing factors.  An experienced federal criminal defense attorney can determine whether the facts of your case fall within the safety valve provision, can advocate for your inclusion in the safety valve provision, can guide you through the process of making the required statement to the government, and can effectively argue for a lower sentence based on the sentencing guidelines and statutory sentencing factors.

* This blog is published by Tucson federal criminal defense attorney Nathan D. Leonardo. Nothing on this website is intended to create an attorney-client relationship. The information provided herein does not constitute legal advice, but is for general information purposes only. If you have a legal question, you can contact us online or call (520) 314-4125.

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