Law is not black or white, it's grey


Federal sentencing guidelines, 5k1.1, safety valve, variance, departure

This is an overview of the federal sentencing guidelines, ways to get a lower sentence in federal court like a departure and variance.

The Guidelines were passed to promote uniformity in sentencing. There were wide disparities between sentences across the country. Post-Booker, judges are allowed to sentence above, within or below the guidelines. Minimum mandatory sentences are not affected.

How can a defendant get below the minimum mandatory sentence?

The way to get below a minimum mandatory sentence is by 5k1.1 (ratting someone else out) or by safety valve if it is a drug case.

5k1.1 - Cooperation - Ratting someone out

The 5k1.1 - substantial assistance to authorities departure - is one of the most common departures in federal criminal court.  It has been said that federal prisons are anthills filled with snitches.  It is the dirty truth about federal criminal cases.  Often the most culpable defendant gets the least sentence if he is first to snitch.  He has all the information on others too.  5k1.1 reduction is the most often sought after reduction.  Let's say the defendant thinks he has some great information that the government could use to convict someone.  He sits down with his lawyer, the AUSA, the agent(s) on the case and spills his guts.  The government may still say "Thanks, but we're not interested."  No 5k1.1 for you.  The minimum mandatory still applies unless you are safety valve eligible.  However, your lawyer can still let the judge know at sentencing that you tried to cooperate, but the government wasn't interested in what you had to offer.  I would say that more than half of the people I've represented in federal court who cooperate do not get the benefit of it. Why?  It is entirely within the AUSA's (assistant united states attorney's) discretion.  They may already know about the person or people you ratted out.  They may not care because it is a lower level crime.  "Let the state handle that petty crap" is their motto.

Safety valve 18 U.S.C. § 3553(f)

The criteria to be safety valve eligible:

(1) the defendant does not have more than 1 criminal history point, 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.  

How do you determine what a guidelines sentence will be?

The first thing to look at is what is the Defendant charged with. The guidelines set forth what is called a base offense level. That is a certain number. Then, there are adjustments that need to be done. For instance, if the defendant was an organizer, manager, leader or supervisor, their offense level will increase. Generally, if they plead guilty early, they will get a 2 or 3 level (if the offense level is 16 or greater) reduction in their offense level. There may be aggravating or mitigating factors that will affect the offense level.

Next, what is the defendant's prior criminal history? The more prior convictions, you have, the more “points” you will have. They are called criminal history points. Generally, the government can go back 10 years or in some cases 15 years to count your prior criminal history. Arrests (not convictions) are not counted. However, arrests will still be in the presentence report that probation prepares for the judge.

What is the sentencing process like in federal criminal court?

Your lawyer may or may not negotiate certain things with the AUSA on the case.  There may be a negotiated plea, sometimes called a "c" plea.  A "c" plea may tell the judge that both sides agree as to:

Amount of drugs (maybe less than actual amount seized)

Amount of loss (maybe less than the intended amount)

Number of victims (in a fraud case, a lower number will reduce your guidelines)

Whether a gun was used (if a gun was used and is in the factual proffer or plea agreement, a defendant will not be eligible for safety valve.  There also may be other enhancements based on the fact a gun was used).  

The factual basis is an area ripe for argument.  The judge could use the info in the factual basis to slam you.  Relevant conduct (not charged) could put your guidelines into the stratosphere.

The case will be set for a change of plea.  You plead guilty. Later, you and your federal criminal lawyer will meet with the probation officer. They will conduct a presentence investigation. They will type up a presentence report. The defendant, through counsel, can object to things in the report. If the objections are unresolved, the judge will resolve them. The defendant's lawyer will file a sentencing memorandum asking for a departure and/or a variance. The departure or variance is a way for a defendant to get a lower sentence.


Some judges may be more likely to give a defendant a variance under 3553(a) (a lower sentence than what the guidelines call for) because it is easier for them to justify it for appellate purposes. A departure is sometimes harder to get than a variance.

Variance based on offender characteristics

One way to get a variance is based on the offender characteristics. Every defendant is unique. Offender characteristics include, but are not limited to, the defendant's physical and mental health, whether the bureau of prisons can adequately provide the care the defendant needs, does the defendant take care of his family (I say his because most defendants in federal court are male), does the defendant know his kids, is the defendant vulnerable (rape is an epidemic in some prisons), what kind of prior criminal history does the defendant have, if the defendant does have some prior convictions, are they old? Are they misdemeanors vs. felonies? Are they related to an untreated drug addiction?

Variance based on offense severity

Offense severity – if the offense severity is way off the mark, a defendant can argue for a variance. For instance, the amount of loss in a fraud case, drug quantity for a low level courier who is responsible for a large amount of drugs, the crack/powder disparity among others are all ripe for an argument by the defense that the guidelines overstate the seriousness of the offense. The defendant may have a bunch of misdemeanor prior convictions that bump up his criminal history points. The defendant should argue that the criminal history over-represents the seriousness of the priors.

What are other arguments that a defendant can tell the judge to get a lower sentence in federal court?

A federal criminal defense lawyer should file a sentencing memorandum to help the client. Judges typically want to sentence defendants consistently. That is, all things being equal, similarly situated defendants should get similar sentences. A chart showing what other defendants were sentenced to for the same thing is helpful to avoid huge differences in sentences (called “disparity”) in legal terms. Also, the sentencing memorandum may give the judge a chart of what other co-defendants in the same case got sentenced to, what their role in the offense was compared to this defendant, etc.


A defendant may have cooperated with the government, but the government failed to file a 5k1.1 motion.  He may have put his life at risk to do so.  Even though the government did not give him credit, the judge still could.  

Mental and physical health

If the defendant has mental health issues or physical health issues, the judge should know about that. The Bureau of Prisons may not be able to handle certain issues. That may be grounds for a different kind of sentence (not prison). Mental health documents may be filed under seal (so other people don't have access to them).


Letters from supporters can be helpful. Particularly if they humanize the defendant and don't seek to minimize the conduct he pled guilty to.  Supporters for the defendant.  Letters can be a great way for the judge to know that a defendant has done some good in his life. He should not be judged in a vacuum for one instance of wrongdoing. It also gives the judge an opportunity to read everything before the sentencing hearing.

Be reasonable

A great federal criminal defense lawyer should be reasonable in asking for a downward departure or variance (a below guidelines sentence). Asking for probation when the guidelines call for 15 years does not pass the laugh test.


An allocution is where the defendant speaks to the judge at sentencing.  An often overlooked part of potentially getting a lower sentence is the allocution. An allocution by the defendant is when the defendant talks to the judge, accepts responsibility for what he did and asks for leniency. A federal criminal defense lawyer should always prepare the defendant for the sentencing hearing. A few keys to a better allocution:

Be honest.

Take responsibility for what you did.

Tell the judge something you want to be remembered for. Something good.

Tell the judge something unique about you. You are not just a number. You are a person. An individual. A father, a son, a daughter, a grandfather, etc.

How much will a defendant serve on a federal sentence?

Minimum mandatory sentences are served day for day.  However, most defendants get 54 days off per year for "good time."  However, that good time is not available for sentences less than a year and for life sentences.  It is better to get the federal criminal client a year AND a day if the judge is going to sentence him to about a year.

Unlike the state court system in Florida, the feds have a better reentry system.  A defendant may go to a half-way house several months before his projected release date.  He will have to look for a job during that time.  

What are the purposes of federal criminal sentencing?

Punishment, deterrence incapacitation & rehabilitation.  The federal judge is supposed to impose a sentence sufficient but not greater than necessary to comply with the                       purposes of sentencing. It is sometimes called the Parsimony clause.

What factors do federal judges use in sentencing a defendant?

Sentences are to be based on the factors at 18 USC § 3553(a)(1)-(7).  The correct guideline application is the required starting point in sentencing.  Sentences are reviewed for reasonableness.

The 3553a factors are:

(1) Nature & circumstances of offense; history & characteristics of defendant 

(2) Punishment, deterrence, incapacitation & rehabilitation

(3) Kinds of sentences available

(4) The sentencing guidelines

(5) The guideline policy statements

(6) Avoiding unwarranted sentencing disparities 

(7) Need to provide restitution 

The judge is supposed to correctly apply and consider the sentencing guidelines, including the guideline range and other aspects of the sentence called for by the guidelines.

Next the court is supposed to consider the guidelines policy statements, including those addressing departures, that might warrant consideration in imposing sentence. 

Next, the court should give a sentence within the advisory guidelines or outside the guideline range, a departure, or a variance.

Which guidelines are applicable to a particular case?

Generally, the guidelines in effect at the time of sentencing are used.  However, if those guidelines are worse for the defendant, he can opt to be sentenced under the previous guidelines.  This is because of the "ex post facto" clause.  However, there is no mixing of guidelines.  That is called the "one book" rule.

Where will a defendant go to serve his time?

This is a very important issue for every defendant in the federal system.  Where you do your time matters.  Do they have vocational programs where you can learn a new trade?  A trade that will help you get back on your feet when you are released?

Do they have the RDAP program for people with drug and alcohol abuse issues?  This can shave a year off a prison sentence and help the defendant stay sober.  Not every prison has the RDAP program.

Are your family and friends going to be able to visit you?  You may want to stay close to them so visitation is easier.  

I always recommend at least two prisons for my clients.  Why?  It is based on classification.  If BOP (bureau of prisons) designates my client to a camp, that is great.  What if they don't?  What if he is medium or high security?  I research the best places for my clients to do their time.  Where a defendant does his time matters.

Statistics for Sentencing in Federal criminal court

For 2013, the United States Sentencing Commission says that over half of all federal inmates are Hispanic, 24% are white, 21% are black and 4% are other.  

About 87% of defendants are male.

Just over 80,000 people were sentenced in 2013.

Immigration (about 25,000) and drug trafficking (about 22,000) are the two most common crimes in federal court. Firearms (about 8,000) and fraud (about 8,000) are the next biggest categories.

The average age of a defendant is about 36.




Federal criminal lawyer Grey Tesh is based out of West Palm Beach, Florida.  A Florida bar board certified criminal trial lawyer, Grey can handle federal criminal cases all across the country.


Esta es una visión general de las directrices federales de sentencia, las maneras de obtener una sentencia menor en un tribunal federal como una salida y la varianza.

Las directrices fueron aprobadas para promover la uniformidad en la sentencia. Había grandes disparidades entre las sentencias de todo el país. Después de Booker, los jueces se les permite sentenciar arriba, dentro o por debajo de las directrices. Sentencias obligatorias mínimas no se ven afectados.

Cómo puede un acusado conseguir debajo de la sentencia mínima obligatoria?

La forma de llegar por debajo de una sentencia mínima obligatoria es por 5k1.1 ( delatar a alguien) o mediante la válvula de seguridad si se trata de un caso de drogas.

5k1.1 - Cooperación - Delatar a alguien

El 5k1.1 - una ayuda sustancial a las autoridades - es una de las salidas más comunes en la corte criminal federal. Se ha dicho que las cárceles federales son hormigueros llenas de soplones. Es la verdad sucia sobre casos criminales federales. A menudo, el acusado más culpable consigue la menor sentencia, si es el primer soplón. Él tiene toda la información de los demás también. La reducción 5k1.1 es el más frecuentemente buscado después de la reducción. Digamos que el acusado piensa que tiene una gran información que el gobierno podría utilizar para condenar a alguien. Se sienta con su abogado, el AUSA, el agente (s) sobre el caso y derrama sus tripas. El gobierno todavía puede decir "Gracias, pero no estamos interesados." No hay 5k1.1 para tí. La sentencia mínima obligatoria sigue siendo válida a menos que tu eres elegible para la válvula de seguridad. Sin embargo, tu abogado puede todavía dejar saber al juez en la sentencia que tu has intentado cooperar, pero el gobierno no estaba interesado en lo que tenías que ofrecer. Yo diría que más de la mitad de las personas que he representado en el tribunal federal que cooperan, no obtienen el beneficio de la misma. Por qué? Es totalmente dentro de la discreción del AUSA (Asistente del Fiscal de Estados . Es posible que ya saben acerca de la persona o personas a las que tu delataste. Puede que no les importa porque es un delito de menor nivel. "Que el estado maneje este pequeño caso" es su lema.

Válvula de seguridad 18 U.S.C. § 3.553 (f)

Los criterios para ser elegible para la válvula de seguridad:

(1) el acusado, no tiene más de 1 punto penal historial, según se determina en las pautas de sentencia;

(2) el acusado no hizo uso de violencia o amenazas creíbles de violencia o poseer un arma de fuego u otra arma peligrosa (o induzca a otro participante a hacerlo) en relación con el delito;

(3) el delito no tuvo como resultado la muerte o lesiones corporales graves a cualquier persona;

(4) el acusado no era un organizador, líder, encargado o supervisor de los demás en el delito, conforme se determina en las pautas de sentencia y no estaba involucrado en una empresa criminal continua, tal como se define en la sección 408 de la Ley de Sustancias Controladas; y

(5) no más tarde de la hora de la audiencia de sentencia, el acusado ha proporcionado verazmente al Gobierno toda la información y evidencia el acusado tiene relativo al delito o delitos de que eran parte de la misma línea de conducta o de un régimen común o plan, pero el hecho de que el acusado no tiene ninguna otra información relevante o útil para proporcionar o que el Gobierno ya está al tanto de la información no será obstáculo para una determinación por el tribunal que el acusado ha cumplido con este requisito.

Cómo se determina cuál será la sentencia bajo las directrices?

Lo primero a tener en cuenta es el cargo por lo cual es acusado. Las directrices establecen lo que se llama base del nivel del delito. Eso es un número determinado. Entonces, hay ajustes que hay que hacer. Por ejemplo, si el acusado era un organizador, gerente, jefe o supervisor, su nivel de delito se incrementará. En general, si se declaran culpables temprano, van a obtener un nivel 2 o 3 (si el nivel de delito es 16 o mayor) reducción en su nivel de ofensa. Puede haber factores agravantes o atenuantes que afectarán el nivel de delito.

Próximo, cuál es la historia criminal previa del acusado? Las convicciones más anteriores que tengas, más "puntos" tendrás. Se les llama puntos de antecedentes penales. En general, el gobierno puede volver atrás 10 años o en algunos casos 15 años para contar tu historia criminal previa. Arrestos (no condenas) no se cuentan. Sin embargo, los arrestos aún estarán en el reporte previo a la sentencia and el oficial de probatoria prepara para el juez.

Cuál es el proceso de sentencia en la corte criminal federal?

Tu abogado puede o no puede negociar ciertas cosas con el AUSA en el caso. Puede haber una súplica negociado, a veces llamado un alegato "c". La excepción de "c" puede decirle al juez que ambas partes están de acuerdo en cuanto a:

Cantidad de drogas (tal vez menos de la cantidad incautada)

Cantidad de la pérdida (tal vez menos de la cantidad prevista)

Número de víctimas (en un caso de fraude, un número más bajo reducirá tus directrices)

Si se utilizó un arma de fuego (si se utilizó un arma y esta informacion esta en el acuerdo o declaración de hechos, el acusado no será elegible para la válvula de seguridad. También puede haber otras mejoras, basadas en el hecho que se utilizó un arma de fuego).

La base fáctica es un área madura para el argumento. El juez podría utilizar la información en la base fáctica para aumentar tu sentencia. Conducta relevantes (no cargado) podría poner tus directrices a la estratosfera.

El caso se establecerá para un cambio de súplica. Tu te declaras culpable. Más tarde, tu y tu abogado penal federal se reunirá con el oficial de la probatoria. Se llevará a cabo una investigación anterior a la sentencia. Ellos escribirán un reporte previo a la sentencia. El acusado, a través de su abogado, puede oponerse a las cosas en el reporte. Si las objeciones están sin resolver, el juez va a resolverlos. El abogado de la parte demandada presentará un memorando de sentencia pidiendo una salida y / o una variación. La salida o varianza es una manera para que un acusado para obtener una sentencia menor.


Es más probable que algunos jueces pueden dar a un acusado una varianza bajo la ley 3553 (a) (una sentencia menor a lo que las directrices exigen), ya que es más fácil para ellos justificar con fines de apelación. Una salida a la baja es a veces más difícil de conseguir que una varianza.

Varianza basado en las características del delincuente

Una forma de obtener una varianza se basa en las características del delincuente. Todo acusado es único. Características del delincuente incluyen, pero no están limitados a, la salud física y mental del acusado, si la Oficina de Prisiones puede proporcionar adecuadamente la atención que el acusado necesita, si el acusado cuida a su familia (lo digo porque la mayoría de los acusados en una corte federal son machos), si el acusado conoce a sus hijos, si el demandado es vulnerable (la violación sexual es una epidemia en algunas prisiones), qué tipo de antecedentes penales tiene el acusado, si el acusado tiene algunas condenas anteriores, son viejos? Son delitos mayores o delitos menores? Están relacionados con la adicción a las drogas sin tratamiento?

Varianza basado en la severidad delito

Severidad de la Ofensa - si la gravedad del delito está muy lejos de la marca, un acusado puede argumentar para una varianza. Por ejemplo, la cantidad de pérdida en un caso de fraude, la cantidad de drogas para un servicio de mensajería de bajo nivel, que es responsable de una gran cantidad de drogas, la disparidad de crack / polvo entre otros, pueden ser un argumento de la defensa de que las directrices exageran la gravedad del delito. El acusado puede tener un montón de condenas anteriores por delitos menores que aumentan sus puntos de antecedentes penales. El acusado debe argumentar que la historia criminal sobre-representa la gravedad de los priores.

Cuáles son otros argumentos que un acusado puede decirle al juez para obtener una sentencia menor en un tribunal federal?

Un abogado de defensa criminal federal debe presentar un memorando de sentencia para ayudar al cliente. Los jueces normalmente quieren sentenciar a los acusados constantemente. Es decir, siendo todas las cosas iguales acusados, en situación similar deben recibir sentencias similares. Un gráfico que muestra lo que otros acusados fueron condenados a la misma cosa es útil para evitar grandes diferencias en las sentencias (llamado "disparidad") en términos legales. Además, el memorando de sentencia puede dar al juez un gráfico de lo que otros co-acusados en el mismo caso fueron sentenciados a, cuál es su papel en la ofensiva se comparó con este acusado, etc.