Lawyers Should Explain the Sentencing Safety Valve

By Robyn Hagan Cain on March 04, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The safety valve authorizes a sentencing judge to impose a term of imprisonment lower than a statutory minimum if the defendant meets five specified qualifications. One of those qualifications is cooperating with the government. A defendant who qualifies for the safety valve is also entitled to a two-point reduction in his offense level.

While the courts adhere to a "no cooperation, no reduction" policy, an uncooperative defendant can get a second shot at sentencing if his lawyer never bothered telling him about the sentencing safety valve, according to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Cooleridge Bell was convicted of conspiring to possess and distribute one kilogram or more of PCP. The district court sentenced Bell to 235 months of imprisonment and 5 years of supervised release. The district court determined that Bell was ineligible for a sentence reduction under the safety valve because he didn't cooperate with the government. Bell doesn't dispute that he refused to cooperate; instead, he claims his lawyer never explained that doing so might have resulted in a lesser sentence.

When the court referred to the safety valve and Bell's apparent ineligibility during sentencing, Bell spoke up to say that he had heard of the safety valve from fellow prisoners, "but my lawyer before him [sic], I never heard of no safety valve."

The lawyer didn't dispute the assertion, but he said that he had told Bell that the court would be interested in Bell's information about his offenses, "and that it was more likely than not that his changing his position on talking to people about these background matters would be beneficial."

The government claimed that the lawyer's warning created doubt as to whether Bell "actually was in the dark about the safety valve." The appellate court disagreed.

If a defendant raises a "colorable and previously unexplored" ineffective assistance claim on appeal, the D.C. Circuit remands the case unless the "record alone conclusively shows that the defendant either is or is not entitled to relief."

Here, the record supports neither a conclusive determination that Bell's ineffective assistance claim will succeed, nor one that it must fail.

The appellate court explained that Bell didn't point to facts that -- if established without contradiction -- would conclusively entitle him to a re-sentencing. His admission that he had heard other prisoners use the term "safety valve," and his decision not to share information with the authorities, raise serious doubt on the prejudice requirement. On the other hand, the lawyer's advice that "it was more likely than not that ... talking to people ... would be beneficial" is a pale substitute for a precise description of the safety valve's potential impact.

The D.C. Circuit remanded the record in Bell's case to the district court for further proceedings to determine whether Bell was denied effective assistance of counsel. While the district court mulls that question, consider beefing up your own sentencing safety valve warning. It's easier to say "cooperation could mean a lighter sentence" than to answer an ineffective counsel accusation.

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