Federal Sentencing: Enhancements and Mitigations

The Pre-Sentence Investigation Report

This document, written by the local Probation Department, is usually abbreviated as the PSI or PSR. Either way you hear it said, it is referring to the same document. We will pick PSI and use that for the purposes of this write-up.

The PSI is always sealed and only available to the Court, the Prosecutor’s office, the Defendant, and the Defendant’s attorney. There are lots of reasons for this, but mainly because the document has VERY personal information including the defendant’s social security number (SSN), current and past addresses, and all family relations.

About halfway through the document, the probation department takes the time to calculate everything that factors into a federal sentence recommendation. Sentence recommendations are just that, advisory. These are based on the Sentencing Guidelines Manual (U.S.S.G) discussed in the primer. Since the famous Booker case, U.S.S.G. recommended sentencing ranges are not binding and can’t be considered mandatory by judges.

In this calculation, the base offense level of the offense is stated first. If more than one conviction is present (either by guilty plea or jury verdict), the base offense levels will be grouped together and only the highest one will be used. They don’t add them together, which is a good thing.

Next the report looks at any factors that the Guidelines Manual specifies regarding base offense level. For example a drug conspiracy charge for 65 kilograms of marijuana will have a base offense level 20. For reference, at 81 kilograms the base offense level would be two points higher: 22.

Enhncements

Now the calculations take a slightly more complicated turn. Enhancements are any element to the specific crime category section that makes things more serious. In our above-drug conspiracy a few examples of this are:

  • If a dangerous weapon was possessed during the commission of the crime, add 2 points;
  • If the defendant used violence or made a credible threat, add 2 points;
  • If the intention of the drug conspiracy was to bring drugs into a jail or prison, add 2 points.

…and so on. A good example of where this can get more complicated is when multiple charges are grouped. In one financial case, a defendant was convicted of (among other things) obstruction of justice for destroying documents that were incriminating. He was still given 2 more points for an obstruction of justice enhancement because the base offense level for other grouped-convicted-counts were higher, and thus obstruction didn’t really factor into his sentence without this enhancement.

Was this legal? It’s dubious, but we’ll find out when his appeal sorts out.

Mitigations

In the same way enhancements are calculated (added points), so are mitigations (subtracted points). There are far fewer of these, but they still exist and are used in most cases.

The most common reasons to subtract points is for pleading guilty (acceptance of responsibility: minus 2 points), pleading guilty quickly (saving government resources: minus 1 point), and having a very minor role in the overall offense scheme in relation to other co-defendants (up to a 4-level reduction).

The Most Good

A good defense attorney knows that well over 90% of defendants in federal criminal cases will plead guilty. Therefore, the sentencing phase is where he can do the most good for his clients. A very thorough investigation of the PSI, elements of criminal conduct, enhancements, and mitigating factors are vitally important.

As a defendant, always double check these sections. Always make sure a defense attorney has reviewed each and every added point, and pursued each and every point-deduction possible. A brief look at the Sentencing Table where the final sentencing range will fall shows that even 2 points one way or another can mean more than a year of a defendant’s life.

In part three of this series, we’ll conclude this tutorial with a discussion of criminal history categories and how that relates to final sentence recommendations.

Go to the the Intro/Primer | Go To Part 1 | Go to Part 3

About PCR Consultants

PCR Consultants started 8 years ago as a small consulting and document preparation firm specializing in federal criminal cases. Specifically, we started helping clients who couldn’t afford, or didn’t want, a private defense attorney to help them apply for early release from federal probation.

Today we help clients in all phases of federal prosecution, from arrest to probation. We even do pardon applications. For a free consultation about federal sentencing questions, e-mail us at info@pcr-consultants.com or give us a call at (480) 382-9287.

Federal Sentencing Explained in Plain English

Federal Sentencing Primer

After a plea deal is signed, which happens in well over 90% of federal criminal prosecutions, the next phase in a case is sentencing. Most first-time offenders really don’t know exactly how this sentencing is done or considered by federal courts, prosecutors, and judges.

While defense attorney’s are supposed to do a thorough job explaining this process, and most do their best, the process is still mystical in the minds of most defendants. This 3-part series is going to dive into the meat of what is held in the Sentencing Guidelines Manual, and how sentences are handed down in federal criminal court.

The Sentencing Guidelines Manual

What is the Sentencing Guidelines Manual? It is a great big book that explains in excruciating detail every possible crime and factor that can be associated with all those crimes when contemplating a sentence.

To explain a little better, say a defendant pleaded guilty to a drug dealing crime. That right there is 8 points. Then the quantity of the drug adds more points. Then a firearm that was carried during the drug deal adds more points. Then the prior convictions of the defendant get factored in and, voila, a range of 110-128 months is the final outcome.

The purpose of this series is to explain just how all of this works. From the simple to the complex, after reading all three parts to this series, the basic process will be easy to follow and, hopefully, take some of the mystery and fear away from a few defendants and their families out there in America.

Part 1: The Base Offense Level
Part 2: Offense Level Adjustments
Part 3: Criminal History Category

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About PCR Consultants

PCR Consultants started 8 years ago as a small consulting and document preparation firm specializing in federal criminal cases. Specifically, we started helping clients who couldn’t afford, or didn’t want, a private defense attorney to help them apply for early release from federal probation.

Today we help clients in all phases of federal prosecution, from arrest to probation. We even do pardon applications. For a free consultation about federal sentencing questions, e-mail us at info@pcr-consultants.com or give us a call at (480) 382-9287.

2255 Motion to Vacate or Set Aside Sentence

How to file a §2255 Motion?

 

**Update**

For all questions and issues concerning the recent Supreme Court decision in Sessions v. Dimaya, and how that could reduce sentences for current federal inmates who have otherwise exceeded their 1-year window, please click here.

This is a very big question to answer, but the question that needs to be answered first is, “Can and should I file a Title 28 U.S.C. §2255 Motion?”

Again, this is a big question, but it is just as important as how to file. A motion of this type is sort of an appeal, without being a direct appeal. It is a collateral attack on the sentence of incarceration itself for constitutional issues.

First, only federal inmates can file one. The normal course of criminal cases in the federal criminal system is a direct appeal. Second, when the direct appeal didn’t work, was never filed, doesn’t have the ability to work, or simply doesn’t meet the needs of the defendant, a §2255 is the way to go.

In order to be eligible and qualified to file one of these types of appeals, a few criteria need to be met:

  1. Only federal inmates may file;
  2. Complaints cannot be made if they could have been made on direct appeal;
  3. Complaints must be an attack on the sentence itself, not issues related to confinement (such as RDAP acceptance, placement in halfway house, or holdings in Solitary/SHU);

To answer any questions you have about how to file a 2255 motion, give us a call for a free initial consultation: (480) 382-9287

Issues for Direct Appeal

For direct appeals, there are a number of issues that can be brought up. This should be discussed first, before a discussion of the issues that can be raised on 2255 filings. It’s a good way to separate the two.

For a direct appeal there are many issues that can generate a successfully filed appeal. For starters, if a sentencing judge misapplies the guidelines manual by adding or subtracting points for issues not stipulated in a plea agreement, a direct appeal is the way to go. Second, if the prosecution has withheld exonerating evidence, a direct appeal is the way to go.

Basically, mistakes in the administration of justice during an original sentencing or trial are the only issues that have merit on direct appeal. As long as the defense attorney did their job well during the original criminal penalty phase, this is usually sufficient.

IMPORTANT: Issues on direct appeal must have been raised at the district level already, but decided wrong. Appeals courts will not listen to new arguments, only ones that have been already raised at the court below them.

Issues for §2255 Motions

It is a sad fact that most federal criminal defendants cannot afford to hire adequate legal representation for themselves when charged with a federal crime. A vast majority of federal defendants are assigned a public federal defender to represent them.

Federal defenders are a amazing at their jobs, usually. However, they also have a case-load that is MUCH larger than privately hired lawyers and will often make errors or be ineffective because of it. It cannot be stressed enough that great lawyers can make big mistakes when they are overworked, and no lawyer is more overworked than a federal public defender.

With that out of the way, one of the triggers that is most often used for the basis of §2255 filings is the ineffective assistance of counsel.

**A Good Example**
One client we had in early 2017 was eligible and appropriate for a reduction in offense level points because he was a small pawn in a large criminal fraud conspiracy. A “minor role” adjustment is ready and available in the Sentencing Guidelines Manual for defendants just like him. Unfortunately, this adjustment is applied very sparingly in some districts, and liberally in others.

Our client’s lawyer did not mention or fight for this adjustment, which would have been totally appropriate and would have shaved a year or two off of his sentence. So here is where a 2255 works well, and for the following reasons:

  1. The client’s lawyer failed to argue for this adjustment at original sentence, and was therefore ineffective;
  2. The sixth amendment in the Bill of Rights guarantees effective counsel, so this issues is a constitutional one, meaning a §2255 is the right course to take;
  3. The issue could not be brought up on direct appeal because it was not raised at the original sentencing hearing; and,
  4. The issue is timely because, last year, the Sentencing Commission recognized that this adjustment was being applied unevenly between the districts and issued a clarifying amendment to encourage a more even application, triggering a “new evidence” type of claim for our client.

There are far too many issues that could trigger a §2255 to be successfully argued and accepted by the district court of sentencing, so we won’t make a big list here. However, know that anything from a sentence that goes above the statutory maximum allowed by law, or issues that should have been raised during the original prosecution by the defense counsel, but was not, are all covered under the §2255 umbrella.

To answer any questions you have about issues that can trigger a successful 2255 motion, give us a call for a free initial consultation: (480) 382-9287

How We Work

PCR Consultants is a document preparation company. We prepare solid documents that our clients can use to file for all sorts of relief in the federal criminal justice system. Anything from §2255 Motions to Requests for Early Release from Probation.

We aren’t lawyers, and we are not a law firm. That means we don’t represent our clients in court, and cannot file for them. What we do is write killer documents that will make the defendant HEARD by the district court, and include with them an application for the appointment of defense counsel.

Inmates are not guaranteed free defense attorney’s as a right during the process of a §2255, this is to protect the federal defender’s office from being inundated with work in this area. Most of these motions that are filed have little to no merit, or are dismissed for various reasons (such as the ability to raise the issue on direct appeal or no standing to argue new constitutional law in a habeas proceeding).

However, once a judge grants an evidentiary hearing on a §2255 that is found to have merit, appointment of counsel is mandatory (according to Federal Rules Governing §2255 Procedure 8(c)). Our service comes as a package deal, we write:

  1. The originating motion, supplemented with the district’s own forms (if required);
  2. A motion for an evidentiary hearing if the judge finds merit in the request;
  3. (Optional) A motion to proceed as indigent (In Forma Pauperis); and,
  4. A motion for the appointment counsel if the motion for evidentiary hearing is granted.

To answer any questions you have about how we work with clients to write a 2255 motion, give us a call for a free initial consultation: (480) 382-9287

What Happens After the Motion is Filed

After the documents are filed, we’re hands-off. Once they are filed, a chain of events will occur. It starts with the original sentencing judge, who will examine the motion for it’s merits and either dismiss the motion or order the government to file a response.

After the government responds, the defendant might want to file a rebuttal to the government’s arguments. This might be allowed under local criminal rules, or it might not. If not, the rebuttal must be submitted before the Court orders or it won’t be considered at all. Alternatively, the defendant can file a motion for leave to reply, which will give him/her more time to formulate a response.

Now is the time the judge will either grant or deny the defendant and the relief they’re seeking. In cases where facts are in dispute, the Court can grant an evidentiary hearing where, as was discussed earlier, a judge is required to appoint counsel for defendants who cannot afford one of their own.

Time Limits

Unlike direct appeals, which are required to be filed within 14 days (usually) after the pronouncement of a sentence, a §2255 Motion can be filed within a 1 year time period. That is, the defendant/inmate has to file this motion within one year of the latest of four events:

  1. The date of final judgment;
  2. The date any removal of obstacles to filing the motion by government action in violation of the constitution were removed;
  3. The date where the Supreme Court rules on a case which triggers an applicable argument to the defendant/inmate;
  4. The date where supporting facts could have been discovered through research.For clarification, in #1 above, a judgment becomes final when it is pronounced or when any direct appeal to that judgment was denied. So if the Supreme Court refuses to hear an appeal, then the date of final judgment is the date that the Supreme Court petition for hearing is denied.

To answer any questions you have about how court procedures work after filing a 2255 motion, give us a call for a free initial consultation: (480) 382-9287

One Shot

Defendants only get one shot at filing a §2255, except in rare cases where new evidence is found, or the Supreme Court makes a startling ruling that changes the process of similar cases. Many, many inmates get help from other inmates they are incarcerated with to file a motion like this. Some are very good, but most times this is a total waste of the one shot a defendant gets at filing a motion like this.

The moral of this story?