North Carolina Criminal Defense Attorney: Understanding the Safety Valve

What is the Safety Valve?

The federal criminal "safety valve" is a provision in United States federal law that allows a judge to sentence a defendant below the mandatory minimum sentence in certain drug-related cases, even if the defendant has a prior criminal record. The provision was created by the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, and has been amended several times since then.The law was significantly expanded in 2018 with the passage of the First Step Act, which amended 18 USC 3553(f) to allow more individuals the opportunity.

The safety valve applies to defendants who are charged with certain drug offenses, such as possession or distribution of controlled substances, and who meet certain criteria. To be eligible for the safety valve, a defendant must:

  1. Be a nonviolent drug offender
  2. Not have used violence or credible threats of violence or possessed a firearm during the offense
  3. Not have played a leadership role in the offense
  4. Cooperate with the government by providing truthful information about the offense and any other criminal activity
  5. Not have disqualifying criminal history

Relief From Harsh Federal Mandatory Minimums

If a defendant meets these criteria, the judge can sentence them below the mandatory minimum sentence for the offense. The mandatory minimum sentence is the minimum sentence that a defendant must receive, as required by law, for certain federal crimes. Mandatory minimum sentences are typically longer than sentences that judges would otherwise impose, and they can limit a judge's discretion in sentencing.

The safety valve allows judges to take into account a defendant's individual circumstances and the specific details of their offense, rather than being bound by the rigid mandatory minimums. This can result in a fairer and more just sentence for the defendant, and can also help to alleviate overcrowding in federal prisons. Safety valve eligible defendants can also receive a 2-level decrease in their offense level under the federal sentencing guidelines, which can result in a significantly shorter sentencing guideline.gibi9l9

No Guarantee of a Reduced Sentence

It's important to note that the safety valve is not a guarantee of a reduced sentence. The judge still has discretion in determining the appropriate sentence, and the defendant must meet all of the eligibility requirements in order to be considered for a reduced sentence.

In addition, the safety valve only applies to certain drug offenses. Defendants charged with other types of crimes, such as firearms offenses, are not eligible for the safety valve.

Overall, the federal criminal safety valve is a provision that provides some relief for nonviolent drug offenders with limited criminal history who cooperate with the government and meet certain eligibility requirements. It allows judges to impose a more individualized and fair sentence, rather than being bound by rigid mandatory minimums.

Defendant Bears the Burden to Prove Eligibility for Safety Valve

A defendant seeking safety-valve relief must prove they are eligible. Generally speaking, this comes down to the fifth element of safety valve eligibility, the requirement that the defendant spill their guts:

Not later than the time of the sentencing hearing, the defendant has truthfully provided to the Government all information and evidence the defendant has concerning the offense or offenses that were part of the same course of conduct or of a common scheme or plan, but the fact that the defendant has no relevant or useful other information to provide or that the Government is already aware of the information shall not preclude a determination by the court that the defendant has complied with this requirement.
Information disclosed by a defendant under this subsection may not be used to enhance the sentence of the defendant unless the information relates to a violent offense.
At least in the 4th Circuit (which includes the Eastern District of North Carolina) the government has no burden to disprove eligibility. This means if the government doesn't agree that the defendant truthfully and fully disclosed their criminal activity (and all relevant conduct) the defendant is going to have a very steep uphill battle, essentially proving that what they told the government was true and complete. They an expect the prosecutor to explain to the court portions of the information provided that they believe were incomplete or false, and why they believe that, without actually providing any evidence. They can also expect that in most circumstances the judge will find the government's analysis of the proffer to be very persuasive. Very basically, if a defendant does not receive a 5K/3553(e) memo (relief from guidelines/mandatory minimums) based upon government's indication to the court that they provided "substantial assistance" the defendant is very unlikely to receive a safety-valve in the face of government opposition. In some circumstances a 5K is not issued because there was no useful information but the government might agree to the safety valve based upon the defendant's truthful and complete information.

Safety Valve Eligibility Expanded by the First Step Act

Safety valve eligibility was expanded with the passage of the First Step Act in 2018. The law now allows certain people with more than one prior criminal conviction to obtain safety-valve relief. Still, there is some disagreement how the safety valve should be applied, and whether defendants who are safety valve eligible under the First Step Act should receive a 2-level reduction in their offense level under guidelines that still have not been updated since the First Step Act passed. Unless and until Guidelines safety valve eligibility is amended to conform with the First Step Act,  judges can consider the statutory safety-valve and vary down from the defendant's guideline but they are not required to. The disparity between statutory and guideline safety valve eligibility should be cured by the adopted amendments to the guidelines, which should become effective in November 2023.

Hire an Attorney Who Has Experience Defending Federal Criminal Charges

If you or someone you care about are facing criminal charges, it is very important that you have an experienced attorney you can trust. We offer free initial consultations in all federal criminal matters. Give us a call at 919-833-8949 to discuss your situation and the possibility of representation.