Relevant Conduct in Federal Sentencing

Posted by Sean P. CecilJul 24, 20230 Comments

Relevant Conduct is How the Feds Punish Criminal Conduct They Can't Necessarily Prove

Relevant conduct in federal sentencing refers to the consideration of additional criminal conduct beyond the specific offense of conviction when determining a defendant's sentence. In the United States federal court system, federal judges use the United States Sentencing Guidelines (USSG) to calculate the appropriate sentence for a defendant convicted of a federal crime. These guidelines take into account the seriousness of the offense, the defendant's criminal history, and other factors, including relevant conduct.

Relevant conduct can include a wide range of criminal activities that are closely connected to the offense of conviction or are part of the same course of conduct or common scheme or plan. This concept is crucial because it allows the court to consider the defendant's overall culpability and impact on society beyond the specific crime for which they were charged. It also relieves the government of the incredibly high hurdle of proving criminal activity "beyond reasonable doubt".

Some important things to know about relevant conduct in Federal Sentencing

Scope: What is Relevant Conduct

Relevant conduct can encompass crimes that were not charged in the indictment or the initial complaint. It may include offenses committed by the defendant, as well as those committed by others that were reasonably foreseeable and in furtherance of the same criminal scheme. Relevant conduct can even include accusations that a jury acquits you for!

Only Must be Proven by Preponderance of the Evidence

The determination of relevant conduct does not require proof beyond a reasonable doubt, as in the trial for the primary offense. Instead, the judge considers the relevant conduct based on a preponderance of the evidence standard. This means, for sentencing purposes, you are guilty of relevant conduct if the judge thinks you are guilty based upon whatever evidence is presented. This evidence can be statements of cooperating defendants, witnesses, police officers, social media messages, pretty much anything. The Rules of Evidence do not apply to sentencing hearings in federal court!

Relevant Conduct Sentencing Helps Push Plea Bargains and Cooperation

Defendants are generally encouraged to cooperate fully with the government in providing information and testimony about relevant conduct in exchange for potentially favorable sentencing outcomes.In fact, much of relevant conduct comes from cooperating witnesses (AKA snitches). The prospect of facing significant prison time increases due to relevant conduct can be a powerful incentive to cooperate, and many defendants do! Of course, this can come at personal risk to themselves and their family and typically leads to a reduction in rather than avoidance of federal prison.

Judge has Discretion How to Treat Relevant Conduct at Sentencing

The judge retains discretion in determining the weight and relevance of the additional criminal conduct. However, the USSG guidelines heavily influence the decision-making process for most judges. One of the explicit goals of federal sentencing policy is to avoid unwarranted disparity. Supposedly similar conduct by persons with similar criminal history should be punished consistently, the theory goes. Of course, anyone who has experience practicing criminal law knows that every life story, however similar, is unique. Part of my job as a criminal defense lawyer is to make sure my client's story is told- to explain to the court why their story is specifically unique and worthy of empathetic consideration.

Relevant Conduct is Confusing and Contrary to Most Americans' Understanding of our Criminal Justice System

Relevant conduct as it is used in federal sentencing is confusing. The whole idea that you can be punished for something that has never been proven, or subject to the crucible of an adversarial hearing seems contrary to our commonly held assumptions about criminal justice in the United States! It is flabbergasting that a jury can find you not guilty of one crime, but if they find you guilty of another related crime you can be punished for both. However, this is the world we live in. And it can be a bitter pill to swallow for defendants facing a federal charge for the first time.

Challenging relevant conduct found in police reports can be nearly impossible. It is crucial that a thorough investigation is conducted and that all the potential factual allegations are known prior to the decision whether to enter a plea agreement or plead not guilty and take your chances with a jury trial. It is also important to know all the potential relevant conduct because some acts may become bargaining chips for a plea agreement- a guilty plea with a "drug weight" stipulation for example can limit your exposure for drugs that may have been handled by someone else that you might be connected to.

An understanding of relevant conduct is one of many reasons that federal criminal matters require an attorney with experience defending federal crimes. This is true whether you are under indictment, have received a "target letter" or have just been paid a visit by law enforcement informing you that they think you may have information about a federal crime.

Find a Federal Criminal Defense Attorney You Trust to Handle Your Case

If you or a loved one is under federal indictment or investigation, call me. I give free initial consultations (generally an informal phone call to discuss the case) and am available for representation or consultation for federal criminal charges in Eastern North Carolina and beyond.