April 17, 2012

The D.C. Circuit Holds That Safety Valve Is Still Available Even If A Person Comes To The Truth Late

Jesus Rodriguez took a long time coming to the truth. But in his appeal in United States v. Rodriguez, the D.C. Circuit held that, sometimes, coming to the truth late is coming soon enough.

Mr. Rodriguez was indicted for cocaine distribution. He faced a five-year mandatory minimum.

There Are Two Ways To Get Under A Mandatory Minimum Sentence

There are two ways under a mandatory minimum. One is to cooperate with the government and receive a government motion for a sentence under the minimum under 18 U.S.C. ยง 3553(e). To do that, means to cooperate with the government in its efforts to put others in prison.

1327707_old_water_valve.jpgThe other option is to meet the requirements for the "safety valve" under section 3553(f). The biggest one - the one that is most often the problem - is the requirement that a person truthfully talk about their role in the offense and disclose to the government everything they know about their own conduct.

As the statute says on this requirement,

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.

If a person qualifies for safety valve in a drug case, the person also receives a two-level reduction in her offense level under the sentencing guidelines.

Mr. Rodriguez Walks Half Way To The Truth

Mr. Rodriguez wanted to take advantage of the safety valve statute. He pled guilty and met with agents for the government and talked about his role in the offense. He talked about his drug dealing.

He told them that the guy who drove him to a drug deal was his boss, who was just giving him a ride.

The government didn't believe him about that.

The Safety Valve Hearing

The case went to a hearing on whether Mr. Rodriguez had been honest in his statements to the government. Mr. Rodriguez testified at the hearing that the man who drove him to the drug deal didn't know it was a drug deal.

Two police officers testified that the man who drove Mr. Rodriguez to the drug deal paced behind the car while the deal was happening, and brought $4,000 in cash and a gun to the deal. They also said that the guy Mr. Rodriguez was selling drugs to was told, by Mr. Rodriguez, that his supplier would drive him to the deal.

The district court concluded that Mr. Rodriguez was lying. It continued the sentencing hearing to figure out what to do with that.

Bad Things Happen When You Lie In Federal Court

The government asked for a number of increases in Mr. Rodriguez's offense level because of his false testimony. He was given a two-level increase for obstructing justice. He lost his acceptance of responsibility credit - the reduction in his guidelines based on pleading guilty.

These changes moved his guidelines from 46-57 months to 78-97 months.

Mr. Rodriguez then decided to change his approach. He met with the government again. This time, he told them what everyone agreed was the truth.

He apologized for his prior statement, and said he was sorry he lied.

The Sentencing Hearing

At sentencing, Mr. Rodriguez apologized to the district court for lying.

The district judge sentenced him to 72 months - his guidelines were increased because of his obstruction, and he lost acceptance of responsibility.

What About Safety Valve?

On appeal, Mr. Rodriguez had new counsel. His new lawyers argued that his trial counsel should have asked for a safety valve reduction under the sentencing guidelines, and that he was constitutionally ineffective for not doing so.[FN1]

The D.C. Circuit agreed.

The court of appeals noted that the government conceded at sentencing that Mr. Rodriguez had, eventually, belatedly, been fully truthful with them by the time the sentencing hearing happened.

The court of appeals held that

The fact that Rodriguez waited until the last minute to provide the information or that he was tardy in doing so does not preclude him from obtaining safety-valve relief. The provision does not distinguish between defendants who provide the authorities only with truthful information and those who provide false information before finally telling the truth. (internal quotations omitted)

Moreover,

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. (internal quotations omitted)

Because Mr. Rodriguez was entitled to a two-level reduction for safety valve the case was remanded for resentencing.

[FN1] - Readers from outside of the D.C. area may be surprised to learn that the D.C. Circuit allows a person to raise an ineffective assistance claim on direct appeal if the record establishes the ineffective assistance sufficiently.

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The Federal Criminal Appeals Blog is published by The Kaiser Law Firm PLLC in Washington, DC. The Kaiser Law Firm represents people who have been charged with federal crimes, are under federal investigation, or have a federal criminal appeal.

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