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April 11, 2012

DC Circuit say a lot on safety valve, acceptance of responsibility, and ineffective assistance

The DC Circuit does not issue many sentencing opinions, but those that come from the circuit tend to cover important ground in interesting ways.  Such is the case with the panel opinion (unsealed today) in US v. Rodriguez, No. 10-3017 (DC Cir. Mar. 9, 2012) (available here). The opinion is not readily summarized, but I thought this section (with cites and quotes removed) discussing ineffective assistance at sentencing was of particular note:

Rodriguez’s lawyer failed to request safety-valve relief after Rodriguez truthfully debriefed. Indeed, Rodriguez’s lawyer suggested that the district court had rejected the safety valve and that it was off the table....  Familiarity with the Guidelines is a necessity for counsel who seek to give effective representation.  When a lawyer fails to raise an applicable provision of the Guidelines, he fails to provide effective assistance. Rodriguez’s lawyer was (or should have been) aware that his client had fully and truthfully debriefed and there was no “objectively reasonable” or strategic reason not to argue its applicability.

Moreover, given the applicability of the safety-valve provision, we believe there is at least a reasonable probability that, had Rodriguez’s lawyer raised it, Rodriguez would have received a lower sentence.  Our sister circuits have held that once a defendant satisfies the five requirements, the district court has no discretion to withhold its application, and that the safety-valve provision is mandatory.

The post-Booker sentencing scheme, which requires the district court to determine the Guidelines range before exercising its discretion, presupposes that the appropriate range is an important guide in the exercise of that discretion.  Here, Rodriguez’s offense level adjustment under the safety-valve provision and corresponding two-point decrease under the drug guideline would reduce his Guidelines range from 78-97 months to 63-78 months.

April 11, 2012 at 03:24 PM | Permalink

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