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Less Time for Federal Drug Crimes: When Safety Valve Defense Circumvents Mandatory Minimum Sentences Under Federal Law

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Congress has passed mandatory minimum sentences for certain federal drug crime convictions, but it is possible to serve less time with the Safety Valve defense.  Here’s how that works.

What is a crime in Texas?  It is whatever has been defined as illegal activity by Congress (for federal crimes) or the Texas Legislature.

In federal cases, Congress not only defines what is a crime that can cost the accused both freedom and property, but it also passes statutes that control how federal judges are allowed to sentence those who have been convicted of federal drug crimes.  For instance, federal judges must follow the United States Sentencing Guidelines when sentencing someone upon conviction of a federal crime.  For more on sentencing guidelines and how they work, read our discussion in Federal Sentencing Guidelines: Conspiracy To Distribute Controlled Substance Cases.

Sometimes, Congress sets a bottom line on the number of years someone must spend behind bars upon conviction for a specific federal crime.  The federal judge in these situations has no discretion: he or she must follow the Congressional mandate.

These are called “mandatory minimums” in sentencing.  They are commonly applied in federal drug cases in here Texas and elsewhere across the country.  For more detail, read Mandatory Minimum Penalties in Federal Sentencing.

1. What Are Federal Mandatory Minimums in Sentencing?

Of course, there are a tremendous number of federal laws that define federal drug crimes.  For purposes of illustration, consider those federal drug crimes that come with either (1) a sentence of 10 years to life imprisonment or (2) those that come with a sentence of 5 to 40 years behind bars, both defined as the mandatory sentences to be given upon conviction for these defined federal drug crimes.

For reference, these refer to the statutory language of 21 U.S.C. §841(b)(1)(A) and 21 U.S.C. §841(b)(1)(B), which instruct the federal judge on how he or she shall sentence anyone convicted of the manufacture, distribution, or dispensing of a controlled substance (i.e., an illegal drug) or possession with intent to either of these things.

Key here:  the judge is given the mandatory minimum number of years that the accused must spend behind bars by Congress via the federal statutory language.  A federal judge cannot go below ten (10) years for a federal drug crime based upon 21 U.S.C. §841(b)(1)(A).  He or she cannot go below five (5) years for a federal drug crime conviction based upon 21 U.S.C. §841(b)(1)(B).

  • How do you know if you are charged with one of these federal drug crimes that come with a mandatory minimum sentence of either 5-to-40 years (a “b1B” case) or 10-to-life (a “b1A” case)? Read the language of your Indictment. It will specify the statute’s citation.  If you do not have a copy of your Indictment, please feel free to contact my office and we can provide you a copy. 

Can’t there be any way to get around that set-in-stone bottom line?  Yes.  There is also a statutory exception which allows the federal judge to dip below that mandatory minimum number of years in some situations.  It is called the “Safety Valve” defense.

2.  When Can the Safety Valve Defense Apply to Sentencing after a Federal Conviction?

Congress has passed another law that provides for an exception to the instructions given to federal judges on the mandatory minimum sentences that must be given according to Congressional mandate.

The law, 18 U.S.C. § 3553(f), provides for an exception that allows the federal judge some leeway in drug crime convictions where he or she would otherwise be required to follow the mandatory minimum sentencing statute.  This is the Safety Value statute. It states as follows:

(f)Limitation on Applicability of Statutory Minimums in Certain Cases.—Notwithstanding any other provision of law, in the case of an offense under section 401, 404, or 406 of the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. 841, 844, 846), section 1010 or 1013 of the Controlled Substances Import and Export Act (21 U.S.C. 960, 963), or section 70503 or 70506 of title 46, the court shall impose a sentence pursuant to guidelines promulgated by the United States Sentencing Commission under section 994 of title 28 without regard to any statutory minimum sentence, if the court finds at sentencing, after the Government has been afforded the opportunity to make a recommendation, that— 

(1) the defendant does not have—

(A)more than 4 criminal history points, excluding any criminal history points resulting from a 1-point offense, as determined under the sentencing guidelines;

(B)a prior 3-point offense, as determined under the sentencing guidelines; and

(C)a prior 2-point violent offense, as determined under the sentencing guidelines; 

(2) 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; 

(3) the offense did not result in death or serious bodily injury to any person; 

(4) 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 section 408 of the Controlled Substances Act; and 

(5) 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.

The judge does not automatically apply it. The prosecutor (AUSA) will not bring up the Safety Value at the sentencing hearing either.

The only way to allow for this exception to be applied in a federal sentencing hearing is for the defense to argue its application and to provide authenticated and admissible support for use of the Safety Valve.

3.  The Five Requirements of Safety Valve

How does the defense do this?  It takes much more than referencing the exception to the general rule itself.  The defense will have to demonstrate the convicted defendant meets the Safety Valve’s five (5) requirements.

A.       What’s Your Score?  Calculating Criminal History Points

Federal sentencing has its own reference manual that is used throughout the United States, called the United States Sentencing Guidelines (“USSG”).  We have gone into detail about the USSG and its applications in earlier discussions; to learn more, read:

In short, the idea is that the USSG work to keep things fair for people being sentenced in federal courts no matter which state they are located.  Someone convicted in Texas, for instance, should be able to receive the same or similar treatment in a federal sentencing hearing as someone in Alaska, Maine, or Hawaii.

Part of how the Sentencing Guidelines work is by assessing “points.”  Offenses are given points.  The points tally into a score that is calculated according to the USSG.

Essentially, the accused can be charged with a three-point offense; a two-point offense; or a one-point offense.  The number of points will depend on things like if it is a violent crime; violent crimes get more points than non-violent ones.  The higher the overall number of points, and the ultimate total score, then the longer the sentence to be given under the USSG.

For a successful safety valve defense, the defense has to show that the total Criminal History Points are four (4) or less.  If you have a maximum of four Criminal History points, you have met the first criteria for the safety valve.

Note:  prior to the passage of the First Step Act, things were much harsher.  If the defense had even two Criminal History Points, then the accused was ineligible for the safety valve.  The First Step Act increased the number of points, or score, from one to four as the maximum allowed for application of the safety valve.  For more on the First Step Act, see The First Step Act and Texas Criminal Defense in 2019: Part 1 of 2 and The First Step Act and Texas Criminal Defense in 2019: Part 2 of 2.

B.  Did You Have a Gun?   Violence or Threats of Violence

Looking at the Safety Valve statute ( 18 U.S.C. § 3553(f)), the second step in achieving application of the safety valve defense involves the circumstances of the underlying criminal activity and whether or not it involved violence of threats or violence, or if the defendant possessed a firearm at the time.

It has been my experience that it is pretty common for there to be a firearm of some sort involved in a federal drug crime prosecution.  Here, the impact of Texas being a part of the Fifth Judicial District for the United States Court of Appeals (“Fifth Circuit”) is important.

This is because this overseeing federal appeals court has looked at  18 U.S.C. § 3553(f) and its definition of possession of a firearm, and come to a different conclusion that the definition given in the USSG.

In the USSG, two points are given (“enhanced”) for possessing a firearm in furtherance of a federal drug trafficking offense.  See,  USSG §2D1.10, entitled Endangering Human Life While Illegally Manufacturing a Controlled Substance; Attempt or Conspiracy.

Meanwhile, the Fifth Circuit has ruled that under the Safety Valve Statute, the standard for the government  is much higher. According to their ruling, in order to be disqualified from application of the safety valve because of possession of a firearm, the defendant has to have been actually in possession of the firearm or in construction possession of it. See, US v. Wilson, 105 F.3d 219 (5th Cir. 1997).

Consider how this works in a federal drug crime conspiracy case. Under the USSG, a defendant can receive two (2) points (“enhancement”) for possession of a firearm even if they never had their hands on the gun.  As long as a co-conspirator (co-defendant) did have possession of it, and that possession was foreseeable by the defendant, then the Sentencing Guidelines allow for a harsher sentence (more points).

The position of the Fifth Circuit looks upon this situation and determines that it is one thing for the defendant to have possession of the firearm, and another for there to be stretching things to cover constructive possession when he or she never really had the gun.

This is the example of the importance of effective criminal defense representation, where research reveals that it is easier to achieve a safety valve defense with a reference to case law.  The Fifth Circuit allows a situation where someone can get two (2) points under the USSG (“enhancement”) and still be eligible for the safety valve defense.

As explained in Wilson, 105 F.3d at 222 (emphasis added):

The commentary to § 5C1.2(2) provides that “[c]onsistent with [U.S.S.G.] § 1B1.3 (Relevant Conduct),” the use of the term “defendant” in § 5C1.2(2) “limits the accountability of the defendant to his own conduct and conduct that he aided or abetted, counseled, commanded, induced, procured, or willfully caused.” See U.S.S.G. § 5C1.2, comment. (n.4). This language mirrors § 1B1.3(a)(1)(A). Of import is the fact that this language omits the text of § 1B1.3(a)(1)(B) which provides that “relevant conduct” encompasses acts and omissions undertaken in a “jointly undertaken criminal activity,” e.g. a conspiracy. 

Being bound by this commentary, we conclude that in determining a defendant’s eligibility for the safety valve, § 5C1.2(2) allows for consideration of only the defendant’s conduct, not the conduct of his co-conspirators. As it was Wilson’s co-conspirator, and not Wilson himself, who possessed the gun in the conspiracy, the district court erred in concluding that Wilson was ineligible to receive the benefit of § 5C1.2. Because application of § 5C1.2 is mandatory, see U.S.S.G. § 5C1.2 (providing that the court “shall” impose a sentencing without regard to the statutory minimum sentence if the defendant satisfies the provision’s criteria), we vacate Wilson’s sentence and remand for resentencing. 

C.      Did Someone Die or Get Seriously Hurt?

The defense must also be able to prove that the defendant’s role in the underlying criminal offense did not result in the death or bodily injury of someone else to achieve the safety valve defense under  18 U.S.C. § 3553(f).

In drug cases, this can mean more than some type of violent scenario.  The mere type of drug or controlled substance involved can impact the success of this defense.  Sometimes, the drugs themselves are the type that can cause severe harm or death.  Several controlled substances can be lethal.  In a federal drug case, there is a special definition for death resulting from the distribution of a controlled substance.

If the defense can prove with authenticated and admissible evidence that the defendant did not distribute a drug or controlled substance that ended up with someone’s death, or severe bodily injury, then the safety valve defense will be available to them.

D.      Were You a Player?  Role Adjustment

The fourth task to achieving the Safety Valve Defense is being able to show that the defendant did not get a “role adjustment” under the USSG.

Role adjustments happen when someone is alleged to be involved in a conspiracy, and they act in some type of position of responsibility.  They can be a leader, or organizer, or somebody who supervises other people in the operations, all as defined in the USSG.

If the defendant was deemed to meet one of these definitions, and had some kind of role involving responsibility or power in the illegal drug operations, then the USSG will add points (“enhance”) as a “role adjustment.”

If you are to achieve the safety valve defense, you cannot receive any “role adjustment” under the Sentencing Guidelines.  This must be established to the court by your defense attorney at the sentencing.

E.       You Don’t Have to Be a Snitch to Get the Safety Valve Defense

Finally, under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(f) the defense must show that the defendant has given a full and complete statement to the authorities.  Specifically, the statute requires a showing that:

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.

I realize that for many people, this language brings with it the assumption that the defendant has to be a snitch in order to meet this requirement for the safety valve defense.  This is not true.

This law does not require a defendant to cooperate against other people in a conspiracy, be it friends or family members or anyone else.  It does not force a defendant to turn over new or additional evidence to the police or prosecutors so the government can use it against other defendants.  It does not mean the defendant has to cooperate with the government to help them go after unindicted co-conspirators, either.

With an experienced criminal defense lawyer, what it does mean is that the defendant has a meeting with the authorities with the goal of meeting the Safety Valve Statute requirements and no more.

The attorney can limit the scope of the meeting.  He or she can make sure that law enforcement follows the rules for the meeting.   The meeting is necessary for the defendant to achieve a safety valve defense, so there is no way to avoid a safety valve interview.

To get the sentence that is below the mandatory minimum sentence, the meeting is a must.  However, it is not a free-for-all for the government where the defendant is ratting on other people.

4.  The Real World: Lawyers Make Mistakes with Safety Valve Defense

Sadly, I have seen criminal defense lawyers fail their clients when it comes to the safety valve defense.

One example involves a case where I represented a client before the federal district court in Corpus Christi, the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas.  He was among several co-defendants charged in a conspiracy to distribute methamphetamine.

I arranged for my client to have his safety valve meeting as well as establishing the other criteria needed for application of the Safety Valve statute.  I was present at the meeting.  There was no cooperation regarding the other defendants, and he did nothing more than the minimum to qualify for the defense.  He was no snitch.

As a result, the safety valve was applied by the federal judge and my client achieved a safety valve application where he was sentenced to 8 years for distribution of meth: well below the 10 years of the mandatory minimums and the USSG calculation in his case of around 14 years.

Sadly, the same day that my client was sentenced, so were several of the co-conspirator defendants.  I was aware that they were also eligible for the safety valve defense.  However, the federal agent at the sentencing hearings that day told me that their lawyers never contact the government for a safety valve meeting.

They were never debriefed, so they could not meet the requirements for application of the safety value statute.  The judge had no choice –they each had to be sentenced to the mandatory minimum sentences under the law.

Once again, I cannot stress the importance of an experienced federal criminal defense lawyer to advocate on your behalf when you are being investigated, charged, or prosecuted for violation of federal criminal laws.


To hear my discussion of these issues, watch my YouTube video here:



For more information, check out our web resources, read Michael Lowe’s Case Results, and read his in-depth article,” Pre-Arrest Criminal Investigations.”


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