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What is a Minor Role Adjustment in a Federal Criminal Case?


A minor role comes into play when a defendant in a federal criminal case is not a significant player in that crime.  It’s challenging to get a minor role if you’re the only participant in the crime.

But if you are involved with other individuals, and it can be argued that you’re one of the least guilty or least culpable people in the crime, you can try to get a minor role in a federal criminal case.

The significance of getting it is that you get two levels off your offense.  Also, if you’re considered a minor player, other downward departures may be available at your sentencing. What is a Minor Role Adjustment in a Federal Criminal Case?

To get it, though, you’re going to have to prove – or your attorney will have to be able to prove – that when compared to other participants in a crime, you are one of the least culpable.

A perfect example is a drug conspiracy where you have drugs moving back and forth.  You have someone who is selling drugs.  You have somebody supplying the drugs and people making a lot of money on the movement of the drugs.

But, the particular individual we’re targeting as the minor player is only a mule in the offense and just moving the drugs from point A to point B, getting a minimal amount minimal for that person could be characterized as a minor player and therefore, get the minor role and get levels shaved off of their offense.

This is a fundamental concept in the big scheme of federal sentencing under the federal sentencing guidelines across the country. Our California criminal defense lawyers will examine this topic in more detail below.

United States Sentencing Guidelines

Federal sentencing guidelines are rules that federal judges must consider when sentencing a defendant convicted of a federal offense. They are primarily designed to give federal judges fair and consistent sentencing ranges when imposing a sentence.

United States Sentencing Guidelines

They are based on the severe nature of the crime and the defendant’s characteristics and criminal history. They are not mandatory. A federal judge seeking to impose a different sentence, higher or lower than the sentence calculated in the guidelines, must explain their decision in writing.

The federal sentencing guidelines are written by an agency called the United States Sentencing Commission, which is part of the judicial branch.

The Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 set forth developing guidelines for federal sentences. The US Congress wanted to narrow the disparity in penalties imposed by judges for similar crimes committed by someone in similar circumstances.

At sentencing, you want to try to get a minor role for your clients. If you’re a criminal defendant, you want to get an attorney who can make the argument for you as it relates to the minor role, typically found under United States Sentencing Guideline 3B 1.2.

If you read that section, it gives you information as to what has to be proved. Usually, you’re going to start talking about conspiracies when you talk about the minor role and who is responsible:

  • Who is the leader/organizer?
  • Who sets it all up?
  • Who stands to profit the most?
  • Who is the most involved?

If somebody is not significantly involved – doesn’t have the knowledge base even to know the extent and scope of a conspiracy, that person starts to put themselves in a position to be able to argue a minor role.

Example of a Federal Drug Case Downward Departure

The applicability or not of downward departures is a matter of discretion that necessitates effective advocacy by the parties.

Even if the judge is convinced that a particular departure should apply under the guidelines, they still have broad discretion to vary from the policies entirely based on equitable considerations like the factors outlined in Title 18 of the United States Code, Section 3553(a).

In a drug offense, a downward departure is available where the government sets up a reverse sting, meaning selling drugs and setting a price for the pills substantially below market. The effect is that a defendant purchases significantly more drugs for the government’s artificial price reduction.

Because federal sentencing often depends on the quantity of drugs purchased, the defendant would be exposed to a higher than average sentence because of the government’s actions. The sentencing guidelines recognize the inequity of this outcome and thus allow for a downward departure.

Defendant Played a Minor Role in the Crime

A typical departure is based on the defendant’s relative role in the crime compared to other co-conspirators or participants.  Federal criminal prosecutions frequently have multiple defendants.

Defendant Played a Minor Role in the Federal Crime

While all co-conspirators of a criminal enterprise are equally guilty, those who played minor, especially in cases of minimal roles, should receive lower federal sentences.

Those defendants who supervise or manage a criminal scheme should receive higher penalties.

The federal sentencing guidelines recognize this reality and provide for departures based on each defendant’s relative role in the crime. Another central area of departure from the guidelines is in the case of substantial assistance to authorities, known as cooperating with the government.

To incentivize this cooperation, the sentencing guidelines provide for significant downward departures upon filing a motion by the government under seal to protect the defendant.

What Are Some Other Reasons for a Downward Departure?

In addition to the reasons listed above, there are other reasons a federal judge would give a downward departure in a sentence, such as when a defendant:

  • voluntarily disclosed the federal crime;
  • accepted responsibility for the offense;
  • was coerced or under duress when committing the crime;
  • has a history of good works or charitable efforts;
  • age and family status;
  • totality of the circumstances calls for a downward departure.

So, if you or a loved one is charged with a federal crime and you’re looking to hire a criminal defense attorney who understands the sentencing guidelines and some of the downward departures that might be available to you, you’ve come to the right place.  Pick up the phone.

Make the call now.  Ask for a meeting with Ron Hedding.  I’ve been practicing criminal defense for approximately 30 years. The Hedding Law Firm offers a free case consultation.

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About the Author

Named Top Los Angeles Criminal Attorney by LA Times and named one of the Top 100 criminal defense attorneys in California by the National Trial Lawyers Association. I'm the attorney other lawyers hire to defend them.

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