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Escaping Mandatory Minimum Sentences, Part I: The Safety Valve

Drug cases at the federal level are not to be taken lightly. These cases are often the product of extensive investigations and generally involve a significant quantity of drugs. Congress has taken a firm stance on drugs and has armed the Department of Justice with several tools to combat crime, including lengthy mandatory minimum sentences.  

In this blog, we discuss one way a defendant may be able to escape a mandatory minimum sentence, even when the weight of the evidence is against him or her. 

What is a Mandatory Minimum Sentence?

In many cases, the relevant statute will set the maximum penalty and the sentencing judge will have the discretion to sentence a defendant as he or she sees fit (after considering the Sentencing Guidelines). However, there are a few statutes that limit a judge’s discretion by setting a mandatory minimum sentence for certain offenses. These statutes will include language such as “in a case involving [the relevant conduct] such person shall be sentenced to a term of imprisonment which may not be less than 10 years.” In other words, the Court cannot sentence a defendant to any prison term less than 10 years, regardless of what the judge feels is appropriate. 

Most mandatory minimum sentences apply to drug offenses and are triggered depending on the quantity of drugs involved. For instances, in a case involving one kilogram or more of a substance with a “detectable amount of heroin”, a defendant is subject to a ten-year mandatory minimum sentence. Lower quantities may implicate a five-year mandatory minimum. Some don’t trigger a mandatory minimum sentence at all. 

What is the Safety Valve?

The “Safety Valve” is created by statute and allows certain defendants to escape the mandatory minimum sentences discussed above. The Safety Valve is found in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(f), and allows the defendant to escape mandatory minimum sentences, if the following conditions are met: 

  1. The Defendant does not have a disqualifying criminal history point total; 
  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; and 
  5. Not later than the time of 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. 

In summary, a Defendant will qualify for the Safety Valve if he/she is a low-level offender, the underlying conduct did not involve violence or a firearm, and the Defendant discloses all information to the Government relating to the underlying conduct.

Is Every Defendant Eligible for the Safety Valve? 

As indicated above, not every defendant is eligible for the Safety Valve. Instead, it is reserved for non-violent defendants, who have a limited criminal history. Defendants who do not qualify for the Safety Valve may nonetheless obtain a sentencing reduction and escape mandatory minimum sentences by providing “substantial assistance” as contemplated by § 5K1.1 of the Sentencing Guidelines — this will be discussed in a separate blog.


When facing federal drug charges, it is important to retain a lawyer that understands the law and is able to present to you all viable options. The Safety Valve is just one way to escape mandatory minimum sentences. But it is the best option when the Government has a strong case and the defendant is non-violent and has a limited criminal history. 

If you are facing federal drug charges, feel free to give our office a call for a free consultation. 

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