Case Results

Career Offender sentenced to less than half the Federal Guidelines

April 2022

Federal criminal defense often comes down to a sentencing practice. The cases are difficult to win. Federal prosecutors get to cherry pick cases they want, and will often reject cases that have procedural errors or factual deficiencies, letting state prosecutors handle them. All of this is to say that a solid grasp of the intricacies of federal sentencing law and policy are fundamentally important for any criminal defense lawyer who intends to defend a federal criminal case.

In Federal Court, a "Career Offender" Faces Stiff Penalties

Recently we had a sentencing in the Eastern District of North Carolina federal court, for a defendant who had been designated a "career offender" based upon his criminal history. It doesn't take much to be a career offender in federal court, and the consequences are profound. The "guideline" sentencing score for any career offender is automatically based upon the highest possible criminal history category (iv), and the offense level is also ratcheted up steeply, leading to guidelines that often seem completely out of touch with the actual crime. This can be difficult to swallow, as a defendant can find themselves facing what looks like a life sentence based upon fairly run of the mill criminal activity (often involving drugs- meth, cocaine, or heroin, most often, at least here in the EDNC).

Federal Sentencing Guidelines are Subject to Judicial Discretion

Many factors go into a sentencing decisions, and thankfully the United States Sentencing Commission Guidelines are only part of it. Although a Court is required to (with the aid of probation, prosecutor, and defense counsel) calculate the correct guidelines sentence, that guideline is technically only advisory. More important are the more flexible statutory sentencing 3553(f) factors. These are designed to guide the court in its mission to come up with a sentence that is not greater than necessary.

Our recent client had plead guilty, without a plea agreement, to conspiracy to distribute and aiding and abetting distribution of more than an ounce of crack cocaine. Because of their career offender status, the guidelines suggested that the appropriate sentencing range would be between twelve and fifteen years. Ultimately he received a sentence of less than six years. Based upon our investigation, we prepared a sentencing memo requesting a downward "variance" from the sentencing guideline, based upon various factors that we argued established that our client was not a danger to the community nor a danger to re-offend upon their release. We also were able to ensure that the probation officer who created the pre-sentence investigation report ("PSR") added a guideline reduction based upon evidence that our client only played a minor role in the conspiracy. Although this reduction did not technically reduce the client's sentencing guideline because of the client's career offender status, it made a significant difference once the judge rejected the career offender guideline and asked what his guideline should be absent that status.

The Court also recommended the client to residential drug treatment at the bureau of prisons; if successfully completed, the program can lead to a one-year reduction in an inmate's sentence! 

Judicial discretion and a specific judge's perspective is always important in sentencing advocacy. Even the best advocacy is unlikely to achieve a variance from a guideline sentence from a judge that always sticks to the guidelines.

Raleigh Attorneys with Experience in Federal Court

If you or a loved one are accused of a federal crime, it can be a confusing and very difficult situation. Our attorneys have experience litigating in both state and federal courts, and are available for consultation or representation.

Practice area(s): Federal Crime

Court: Eastern District NC

Sean P. Cecil

Sean is an experienced advocate dedicated to justice for all people. He believes that individual human rights outweigh the freedom to make an easy dollar.