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February 26, 2007

Major safety-valve ruling from the Ninth Circuit

For some low-level federal drug offenders, the mandatory minimum safety-valve is probably the most important (and least examined) statutory story.  Today a Ninth Circuit panel issues an important ruling concerning the safety valve in US v. Mejia-Pimental, No. 05-30604 (9th Cir. Feb 26, 2007) (available here).  Here is the opening paragraph (with some cited omitted):

This case provides the occasion to explore the parameters of the statutory safety valve, which grants relief from certain mandatory minimum sentences when five criteria are met.  We have previously decided that the fifth factor, which requires a defendant to "truthfully provide[ ]" all his knowledge about the crime to the Government before sentencing, see § 3553(f)(5), is aimed at defendants "who 'have made a good-faith effort to cooperate with the government.'"  We have never, however, defined precisely what "good faith" means in this context. We now hold that to demonstrate "good faith," a defendant need only show what the statutory language directs: that by the time of sentencing, he has "truthfully provided to the Government all information and evidence [he] has concerning the offense or offenses." § 3553(f)(5). In this case, the district court construed good faith too broadly in determining that Mejia-Pimental was ineligible for relief.  Because the court thus erred in its application of the safety valve and then sentenced Mejia-Pimental with reference to a mandatory minimum term, we vacate his sentence and remand for resentencing.

UPDATE:  Though the legal issue in Mejia-Pimental is interesting, I also find the case to be another remarkable example of the federal trial penalty.  The defendant in this case was indicted with four co-defendants for participating in a drug conspiracy.  As the Ninth Circuit explains, "Mejia-Pimental's co-defendants all pled guilty and received sentences of two years or less."  And the defendant's uncle, "whom both parties acknowledge as the 'true and ultimate leader' of the drug conspiracy, was later indicted separately" and received a sentence of 30 months.

So, with the ring-leader getting 30 months and all other co-defendants getting 24 months or less, what sentence did the similarly situated Mejia-Pimental get?  156 months!   Making matters worse, Mejia-Pimental apparently tried to plead guilty, but went to trial only after the district court refused to accept his plea deal.  Wow!  Given this context, I am not surprised that the Ninth Circuit was sympathetic to Mejia-Pimental's legal claims.

Besides proving yet again that prosecutorial charging and bargaining discretion can dramatically undermine efforts to achieve sentencing uniformity, this case has me wondering if any academics or other researchers are trying to quantify the size of the trial penalty in the federal system.  My sense is that the "sentencing price" of exercising the right to go to trial has grown even larger after Booker, but this is just a hunch based on a few anecdotal (mostly white-collar) cases.  I hope anyone working on this sort of project will let me know of their efforts.

February 26, 2007 at 12:49 PM | Permalink


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Yesterday (2/26/07) the Ninth Circuit issued an interesting decision on good faith cooperation to comply with the statutory safety valve for relief from mandatory minimum sentences in United States v. Mejia-Pimental, No. 05-30604. This isn't strictly a... [Read More]

Tracked on Feb 27, 2007 2:25:58 PM


Fun fact: the district judge in this case was also the subject of the "Best Notice of Appeal Ever":


Posted by: anon | Feb 26, 2007 2:25:44 PM

I'm still trying to understand these laws. This in essence seems to be if you snitch - a possible death sentence while in prison if killed for snitching - then we will give you a break. If not, and if you exercise your right to trial, we will bury you.

Is that about it?

Posted by: George | Feb 26, 2007 3:42:25 PM

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Posted by: galacticos | Feb 2, 2009 4:29:31 AM

ya thats the way the feds are but dont ever take there first plea never veer

Posted by: jf | Aug 28, 2009 5:33:32 PM

hi my girlfriend was indicted last year and is eligable for the safty valve but they said she would still get 5 yrs to me that is not fair to her or my sealf after all she was indited after every one elese because they thought she knew more than she did she offerd to take a lie detector test her attorney is shawn m sutton bay city MI he relly dont seem to no much about fedral cases afterall he is a public deffendor

Posted by: matthew bermejo | Sep 11, 2009 12:00:27 PM

GPS tracking systems are only a small part of what it takes to keep our children safe from sexual predators. First of all, legislators need to ensure that these sex offenders cannot reside anywhere near children. Police need to spend less time hiding with their radar guns to give speeding tickets and more time monitoring areas where sex offenders reside. GPS tracking bracelets are a must! The people monitoring GPS trackers most be competent and knowledgeable.

Cutting funds to monitor sex offenders can in now way help our children

Posted by: jordan shoes 1 | Nov 29, 2010 3:03:54 AM

Does any one know of a case involving a DWI that was not consider in a safety valve - one as described below My son is a first offender and is charged with meth 500m while discover materials does not support this amount - he was given a 5 minute option to sign plea or go to trial and get time for all charges strong intimidation. His attornry told him he should be safty vale eligible. however my son had a dwi with no consequences other than pay $500 fine his dui was reduced to the DWI because the blood work on paper showed inconsistenies and the judge allow the motion to suppress the blood test.

Now my son is now not eligible for the safety vavle and will get the manatory min of ten years all for smoking meth

Posted by: nancy mercer | Feb 24, 2011 7:55:31 AM

Hello. My father was recently found guilty of 2 counts of possesion w/ the intent to distribute, 2 counts of conspiracy, & 2 counts of using a phone to committ the crime. He had a jury trial in Illinois. It's his 1st time being in trouble with the law. Does he qualify for the safety valve? Is it risky to pursue the safety valve statute? Please help!

Posted by: Dreamer | Jul 7, 2011 12:49:29 AM

My son plead guilty to a drug conspiracy charge and was led to believe he qualified for the safety valve. When his PSI came back, it said he didn't qualify because of 3 misdemeanors which were theft of property, 2 harrassment charges. All were misdemeanors and he was fined.Do misdemeanors disqualify him for the the safety valve?

Posted by: Allen and Jaime Eans | Dec 11, 2011 8:30:49 PM

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