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What is a Mandatory Minimum Sentence in a Federal Case?

Posted by Ronald D. Hedding, ESQ. | Jun 13, 2022

People arrested for federal crimes have never been arrested before the vast majority of the time.  Even those who have been arrested before don't understand the significance of a mandatory minimum sentence.

It means that there are certain crimes that, if you get convicted of, you face a mandatory minimum.  In other words, if you get convicted of a crime that has one, you must obtain that mandatory minimum as your sentence.  That's the lowest sentence you could get.  You could get a higher sentence, but there's a minimum sentence the judge must give you.

Mandatory Minimum Sentence in a Federal Case

A perfect example is you see these in drug cases, sex crime cases, and other cases, but those are the main areas you're going to see it.  An example is if you have more than 50 grams of methamphetamine that you're moving in a drug case and you get arrested and appear in federal court, you're facing a 10-year minimum.

That means unless you can figure a way to get below the mandatory minimum – and there are very few – that means if you get convicted, whether pleading guilty or you go to jury trial and lose, the judge must give you at least ten years.  They could give you more time depending on where you fall in the guidelines and how the judge views your criminal history and the case.

The bottom line is you have to get at least ten years.  So, that mandatory minimum is tricky to deal with, and in drug cases, you see a 5-year, a 10-year, a 15-year, and you even see a 20-year mandatory minimum in some cases where someone is determined to be a career offender.

So, it's a little bit of a complex area even for some attorneys. Our California criminal defense lawyers will examine this topic in more detail below.

Federal Sentencing Guidelines and Jury Trial

A significant difference between state courts in federal sentencing is the United States Sentencing Guidelines. There are guidelines for a prison term based on the offense level and criminal history.

However, a federal criminal lawyer can make arguments on departure factors that will allow a federal judge to reduce or increase a guidelines sentence based on multiple factors.

Federal Sentencing Guidelines

Under federal case law, the guidelines range itself are “advisory,” meaning a federal sentencing judge has significant discretion to vary from the guidelines based on several factors.

This means a persuasive sentencing memorandum by a federal attorney could be crucial in convincing the federal judge to exercise their discretion in departing from the sentencing guidelines range. In the end, this could result in significantly fewer sentences than the initial guidelines indicated.

Another difference in federal courts is the application of mandatory minimum sentences – especially for drug offenses. For instance, if a defendant had possession of a small amount of certain controlled substances, they could then be facing up to a ten-year mandatory minimum sentence from which the federal judge has no discretion to vary.

If a plea bargain can't be reached, the case must proceed to a federal jury trial.  All jury members have to get a unanimous verdict after hearing arguments and seeing evidence from the Assistant United States Attorney and the federal criminal defense lawyer.

What Are Departures from the Guidelines?

A federal judge has to decide whether there are aggravating or mitigating circumstances that the guidelines didn't sufficiently consider.

A judge who determines that such an aggravating or mitigating circumstance exists has the discretion to impose a sentence below or above the guideline range. When a judge departs from the guidelines, they must list their reasons in writing.

The defendant can appeal the sentence if the federal penalty is an upward departure. On the other side, if it's a downward departure, then the government has the option to appeal.

There is a particular type of downward departure request made by the federal prosecutor called a “substantial assistance” This could be granted when a defendant provides substantial assistance in the criminal investigation of another offender.

The federal sentencing judge will consult other sources of authority, including the equitable factors in 18 U.S.C. § 3553(a), to determine the appropriate sentence to accomplish the sentencing goals, including punishment, deterrence, and rehabilitation.

Review of Evidence to Determine Best Defense Strategy

The United States government prosecutes federal crimes as opposed to the District Attorney's Office in all the states. Federal prosecutions are part of the United States Attorney's Office, which is part of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Federal criminal investigations are handled by various federal law enforcement agencies, like the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and the Department of Homeland Security.

Federal Criminal Defense Lawyer in California

What you need to do if you find out that you're facing a mandatory minimum in a case you have to hire a lawyer right away.  Give that lawyer all your information about the issue and let the lawyer begin to figure out how to deal with the case and what to do.

My advice to you is straightforward; if you've hired a lawyer and have spent money and you know their lawyer knows what they're doing, they have experience – you want to listen to what the lawyer tells you to do.

Why hire a lawyer if you're not going to follow their advice?  Because some of these cases are complex, I notice that in federal cases, many defendants — especially where these mandatory minimum sentences are applicable––are a little bit more sophisticated than some of the state clients I represent.

But don't think you're too sophisticated and smarter than your lawyer because, unfortunately, you'll end up with a sentence you don't want.  No one wants a decade in prison served at 85%.

I've been doing this now for 30 years.  I worked for the prosecutors early in my career.  I worked for a judge earlier in my career, and then in the 1990s, I became a criminal defense attorney and started to defend people just like you.

So, if you want the best, pick up the phone.  Ask for a meeting with Ron Hedding, and we'll figure out how to best handle your situation. The Hedding Law Firm offers a free case consultation.

About the Author

Ronald D. Hedding, ESQ.

Ronald D. Hedding, Esq., is the founding member of the Hedding Law Firm. Mr. Hedding has an extensive well-rounded legal background in the area of Criminal Law. He has worked for the District Attorney's Office, a Superior Court Judge, and as the guiding force behind the Hedding Law Firm. His multi-faceted experience sets Mr. Hedding apart and puts him in an elite group of the best Criminal Defense Attorneys in Southern California.