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May 2, 2006

The funny logic of federal sentencing

This interesting story from the Knoxville News Sentinel describes an unusual federal sentencing in which a drug dealing defendant with old priors may qualify for a mandatory life term and yet also qualify for a lower sentence through the application of the so-called safety-valve.  Here is a snippet from the article:

Minto has been running afoul of the law since the 1960s.  In the early 1990s, he racked up two felony drug convictions.  Under federal law, that means he should be facing a mandatory life term in the marijuana-hauling venture.  "Guess what?  A funny thing happened on the way to a life sentence," defense attorney Bruce Poston told [District Judge Roonie] Greer on Monday....

[T]he "safety valve," a provision of the law designed to cut first-time offenders a break, [has] five criteria a defendant must meet to qualify.  Minto should not have met at least two, maybe three, of those criteria.  But he did, Poston argued. 

Because all of his prior crimes are more than 10 years old, they did not count against him in the presentencing calculation done to determine what Minto's sentence should be under advisory federal guidelines.  Even more unusual is that Minto had "debriefed" with federal authorities about his crime — another key safety valve criteria — despite the fact that he later opted to stand trial.... 

Both sides agree that the core issue facing [Judge] Greer is what to do with a guy who, under one law, nets a life term while, under another, might draw as little as 97 months in prison.

May 2, 2006 at 06:34 AM | Permalink


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How unreasonable to even consider that a convicted felon who; “has been running afoul of the law since the 1960s”, and “in the early 1990s racked up two felony drug convictions”, might even be considered for the “safety valve”. The safety valve does not guarantee an additional two level reduction and is precluded if; there was a weapon or obstruction of justice, or if the defendant was a leader organizer or if it is unreasonable. The burden is on Minto to prove that he qualifies for the reduction and the appellate court to review the reasonableness of the sentencing judge’s finding that Minto’s criminal history is comparable to a first time offender. It is no more reasonable to treat Minto as a first time offender than it is to treat as first-time offender as a career criminal. The story should be about the life sentences given to real first time, 20 year old offenders rather than the anomaly of an old habitual offender who might get as little as 97 months, for all I know 97 months may be a life sentence for Minto if he has been committing crimes since 1960. Also 97 months is not LITTLE, for those who have done time at the 85% mandatory sentencing in the federal system, but the life time cost of imprisonment of 20 year old drug dealers is damn sure unreasonable.

Posted by: Barry Ward | May 2, 2006 8:25:42 AM

If Minto was just a drug dealer, I cannot comprehend why an 8-year sentence isn't perfectly adequate.

By the way, in most states, you don't have to do much to get a felony drug conviction; most college graduates have done that (but probably not been convicted). And it looks like Minto wasn't in jail or in any trouble for the last 15 years. What I think is that a life sentence would be ridiculous.

Posted by: David in NY | May 2, 2006 11:17:44 AM

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