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April 23, 2010

Questionable(?) DC Circuit ruling on safety-valve burden of proof

The DC Circuit has a very intriguing little opinion this morning in US v. Gales, No. 08-3040 (DC Cir. Apr. 23, 2010) (available here), concerning burdens of proof and eligibility for statutory safety valve relief from an applicable mandatory minimum sentencing term.  At issue in Gales is whether the defendant satisfied the safety valve requirement to truthfully provide all information about his offense: the defendant claimed he did, prosecutors claimed he did not.  After saying it was not clear error for the district court to not believe the defendant, the DC Circuit has to respond to these claim by the defendant about the applicable burdens of proof:

Gales contends that the district court “misunderstood and misapplied” the burden of proof under the safety valve provision, claiming that after the government expressed its doubts to the district court about Gales’ story concerning his drug supplier, the district court shifted the burden of proof to Gales to prove that he had not lied.  Gales argues that such an “impossibly high burden” is not imposed by the law.  Instead he claims that once he made a credible showing that his story was truthful and complete, it was the government’s burden to present evidence showing otherwise....

Gales [further] contends that when the district court stated that the way the safety valve works is for Gales to give the government “the answer they want,” the court was giving the government the same discretion it has pursuant to the Sentencing Guidelines’ substantial assistance provision, U.S.S.G. § 5K1.1.  That is, the district court was allowing the government to prevent him from receiving relief under the safety valve.  According to Gales, this was not Congress’ intent.

Relying on the Circuit's (pre-Blakely) precedent, the panel in Galesrejects the contention that there is any problem with placing the burden on the defendant to establish "his story was truthful and complete."  In other words, the defendant here gets subject to a 5-year mandatory minimum especially because he could not satisfy his burden of proving that "his story was truthful and complete."  

As my quick reference to Blakely above is meant to suggest, there could be possible constitutional arguement (based in the Fifth Amendment more than the Sixth Amendment) against an interpretation of a statutory scheme that functionally increases the defendant's sentence because he fails to prove his admissions of guilt were truthful and complete.  More fundamentally, I think constitutional doubt and rule of lenity statutory construction principles suggest, at least to me, that the proof burden should be on the government in this kind of setting.

April 23, 2010 at 11:29 AM | Permalink


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The mandatory minimum is the default. Safety valve is an affirmative benefit reducing an otherwise mandatory sentence if certain conditions are met. Assuming the conviction triggering the minimum has complied with Blakely, why would there be any issues with putting the burden on the defendant to prove he was eligible for something less than what the statute generally requires as a sentence?

Posted by: DM | Apr 23, 2010 6:38:44 PM

maybe becasue under our constitution in any action between the state and a citizen the burden is ALWAYS supposed to be on the STATE.

kind of like that old saying

"innocent till PROVEN guilty!"

Posted by: rodsmith | Apr 24, 2010 1:45:12 PM

Um, a defendant being sentenced has in fact been proven guilty.

Posted by: DM | Apr 26, 2010 9:00:51 PM

I am a defendant awaiting sentencing. I pled to conspiracy to traffice and distribute 4 kilos of cocaine. The offense level is 30 and was adjusted to 25 for acceptance of responsibility and something else. The plea states I qualify for safety valve relief. The guidline range is 57-70 months. What can I expect? what is best possible outcome.

Posted by: vincent | May 13, 2010 10:25:18 PM

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