Federal Criminal Sentencing

What is Federal Criminal Sentencing?

If a Defendant pleads guilty, or if a Defendant proceeds to trial and is convicted, a federal district court judge will sentence the Defendant.

How Do Federal District Court Judges Determine a Defendant's Sentence?

When determining federal criminal sentencing, federal judges take into account a variety of factors, including:

  1. The nature and circumstances of the offense, and the defendant's personal history and characteristics.
  2. The need for the sentence to reflect the seriousness of the offense, to promote respect for the law and to provide just punishment.
  3. The need for deterrence.
  4. The need to protect the public.
  5. The need to provide the defendant with appropriate educational training, vocational training, or medical care.
  6. The kinds of sentences available to the judge (sometimes the judge has limited sentencing options — for example, some federal drug offenses require minimum mandatory prison terms).
  7. The correctly calculated sentence range under the United States Sentencing Guidelines.
  8. The need to avoid unwarranted sentencing disparities.
  9. The need to provide restitution to victims.

What Are the United States Sentencing Guidelines?

The United States Sentencing Guidelines is a system that federal judges around the United States use to calculate an advisory federal criminal sentencing range for defendants.

The guideline sentencing range is called advisory because it is not mandatory — rather, it is a suggested federal criminal sentencing range of incarceration for the judge to consider along with other sentencing factors.

For example, in a federal health care fraud case, a defendant's advisory federal criminal sentencing guideline range might be 24 to 30 months of incarceration. The federal judge is not obligated to sentence the defendant within this range, but this range is an important factor in the judge's sentencing decision.

How Do the United States Sentencing Guidelines Work?

The federal criminal sentencing guidelines are designed to take into account the seriousness of an offense, as well as a Defendant's criminal history.

Offense seriousness is determined in a variety of ways, depending on the particular offense charged. For example, in a drug case, offense seriousness is determined by the weight (and sometimes purity) of the drug. In a fraud case, offense seriousness is determined by the amount of the financial loss, actual or intended, that occurred.

The guidelines factor a Defendant's criminal history into the federal criminal sentencing calculation by assigning points for a Defendant's prior criminal convictions. More criminal convictions mean more points and more points mean a longer sentencing guideline range.

What is a Minimum Mandatory Sentence?

When the Defendant is facing a minimum mandatory sentence, the shortest sentence that the judge can impose is that minimum mandatory sentence. For example, if the minimum mandatory on a drug case is 5-years, the judge cannot give the Defendant a sentence of any less than five years. In addition to drug cases, federal law applies minimum mandatory sentences in federal firearm and federal aggravated identity theft cases.

However, if the Government files a motion to recognize the Defendant's substantial assistance in the federal investigation and prosecution of others, the judge has the power to sentence the Defendant below the minimum mandatory.

Also, in drug cases, if the Defendant qualifies for the safety valve, he or she is not subject to the minimum mandatory sentence. There are 5 requirements in order to qualify for the safety valve:

  1. The Defendant does not have more than one criminal history point under the United States Sentencing Guidelines.
  2. The Defendant did not use violence or credible threats of violence or possess a firearm or other dangerous weapon 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 by the sentencing guidelines and was not engaged in a continuing criminal enterprise.
  5. No 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.

What Types of Federal Judges Are Involved in the Federal Criminal Sentencing Process?

Two types of judges are involved in the federal criminal sentencing process, federal magistrate judges and federal district court judges.

Federal magistrate judges are appointed by the federal district court judges. The magistrates serve 8-year terms, which can be renewed. Among other duties, magistrate judges oversee first appearances of criminal defendants, set bail, and conduct change of plea hearings.

Federal district court judges are appointed by the President and confirmed by the United States Senate. They serve as federal judges for life. Among their duties, they conduct federal criminal sentencing hearings.

How Does The Federal Criminal Sentencing Process Work?

The Plea Hearing:

When a Defendant pleads guilty to a federal criminal charge, a federal magistrate judge normally conducts the change of plea hearing. During the change of plea hearing, the federal magistrate will question the Defendant to make sure that he or she understands the consequences of pleading guilty. The federal magistrate will also make sure that the facts of the case support the charges to which the Defendant is pleading guilty. After the hearing, the federal magistrate will write a report to the district court judge, either recommending or not recommending that the district court judge accept the Defendant's guilty plea. If the district court judge accepts the plea, a sentencing date will be set about 70 days after the change of plea hearing.

The Presentence Investigation Report:

The presentence investigation report (PSR) is a document prepared by the probation office. The PSR provides the judge with information concerning a Defendant's upbringing, educational level, work experience, health issues, and economic resources. It also contains a description of the offense for which the Defendant was convicted, and estimates the Defendant's sentencing guideline range. The probation office will prepare a first draft of the PSR, to which the Government and Defense may make objections. If the probation officer is unable to resolve the objections, the judge will resolve the objections at the sentencing hearing.

The Sentencing Memorandum:

Before sentencing, both the Government and the Defendant's federal criminal defense attorney may file a sentencing memorandum. A defense attorney's sentencing memorandum will address the sentencing factors that the judge will review at the sentencing hearing, such as a Defendant's history and characteristics. Also, the sentencing memorandum may contain arguments in support a lower sentencing guideline range.

The Sentencing Hearing:

At the federal criminal sentencing hearing, the district court judge will rule on any unresolved objections to the PSR. Both the Government and the Defense will make argument as to what they believe the correct sentence should be. Both sides can present evidence, in the form of testimony, letters, documents, or videos. The Defendant has the right to address the federal district court judge during the sentencing hearing.

Are you looking for the best federal criminal defense lawyer in Tampa Florida? Contact Attorney David C. Hardy.

Tampa Attorney David C. Hardy is a former prosecutor that now represents people in matters related to federal criminal offenses.

Attorney Hardy is Board Certified by the Florida Bar and the National Board of Trial Advocacy as an Expert in Criminal Trial Law. In the Federal Courts, he has handled a wide variety of cases including international extradition, drug trafficking, bank fraud, health care fraud, immigration offenses, aggravated identity theft, the misbranding of drugs, and firearms offenses. He has represented clients in Federal Trial and Appellate Courts in Florida, Texas, and Georgia.

Attorney Hardy has the knowledge, skills, and experience to guide you through this process and obtain the best possible results. Contact Attorney Hardy for a free consultation.