Tampa Federal Sentencing Lawyer
Sentencing in the federal court system is a separate phase in the criminal process that occurs after trial and conviction. Federal judges follow the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines when calculating an appropriate sentence, but there are several places throughout this process where a skilled and experienced criminal defense attorney can help a convicted offender receive a lighter sentence than might otherwise be imposed. If you have decided to plead guilty in your case, or if you have been found guilty at trial on a federal criminal offense, be sure to get quality representation during the sentencing phase for the best outcome available. In Tampa, Scriven Law, P.A., is a criminal defense law firm that focuses especially on criminal matters in the federal system. Call our Tampa federal sentencing lawyer at 813-226-8522 if you are facing arrest, negotiating a plea, or have been recently convicted and are awaiting sentencing.
How Does Sentencing Work in the Federal System?
Federal sentencing is a multi-step process. The U.S. Sentencing Guidelines lie at the heart of this process. These guidelines date back to the 1980s when they were first created by the U.S. Sentencing Commission. Originally, judges were required to impose sentences that were calculated according to the Guidelines, but in 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that mandatory guidelines violated the Sixth Amendment right to trial by jury. Since that time, the guidelines are officially advisory only, although judges are still required to calculate a sentence using the guidelines, consider that sentence, and give reasons if they decide to vary or depart from the guidelines.
The guidelines contain a range of fines and prison terms for every federal criminal offense. The list of federal offenses is long and includes matters such as:
- Criminal Sexual Abuse
- Receipt of Stolen Property
- Drug Trafficking
- Drug Possession
- Money Laundering
- Tax Evasion
The sentencing range for a particular offense is determined according to the serious nature of the offense, the defendant’s conduct regarding the offense, and the defendant’s criminal history. For instance, the judge will look at the amount of drugs trafficked or the value of property stolen, whether a weapon was used in the crime, whether the defendant has a criminal record, etc.
The judge resorts to a sentencing table to calculate the applicable range. The sentencing table contains a dizzying array of offense levels, criminal history categories, and sentencing zones. To give you an idea of the complexity of the guidelines, consider that the Guidelines Manual 2018 runs to 608 pages.
Once the applicable range is determined, the judge considers different aggravating or mitigating factors to determine where within that range to sentence the defendant. For example, a sentence could range from requiring the defendant to serve no additional time beyond what has already been served, up to the maximum sentence in the range.
What Is the Federal Sentencing Process?
The sentencing phase in the federal system includes a Presentence Report followed by a Sentencing Hearing.
Presentence Report – After a conviction, the probation officer conducts a presentence investigation for the court. This step involves interviewing the defendant to learn about the defendant’s criminal history, family history, any history of substance abuse, financial circumstances, and other relevant factors. The defendant can choose to participate or remain silent, and the defendant has the right to have counsel present at this interview as well.
The probation officer also conducts an investigation in addition to the interview and prepares a report for the judge. The prosecutor and defendant both have an opportunity to review the report before sentencing. Either party has the opportunity to object to material and information in the report.
Sentencing Hearing – Sentencing occurs at a sentencing hearing, which is like a trial but not as formal. It is an adversarial hearing conducted according to the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, but the Federal Rules of Evidence don’t apply, so a broader range of evidence can be introduced than might be allowed in a trial. Counsel for both parties can make arguments to the judge, and they may be able to call witnesses or present evidence at the judge’s discretion.
The judge can issue a sentence within the applicable guidelines range or may vary or depart from the guidelines. The defendant has a right to appeal unless this right was waived in a plea agreement. Sentencing will typically address the following matters:
- Probation or Prison
- Mandatory Minimum Sentences – Many federal crimes come with mandatory minimum sentences. However, the judge can grant relief from a mandatory minimum based on the defendant providing substantial assistance to the prosecution or if the defendant meets the “safety valve” criteria on a drug trafficking conviction.
- Financial Penalties (fines, restitution, special assessments)
- Supervised Release – This is not parole. Parole has been abolished in the federal system. Supervised release refers to conditions that may be placed on a convict after they have completed their sentence.
What Effect Does a Plea Agreement Have on Federal Sentencing?
Most convictions come from a guilty plea rather than a trial verdict. Usually, the defendant’s plea is based on a plea agreement negotiated with the prosecution. In these cases, the plea agreement will likely contain a recommended sentence, which is presented to the court in the form of a request. The recommendation can be inside the applicable guideline range or outside the range for justifiable reasons. The judge will still conduct a review of the sentencing guidelines and decide whether or not to accept the plea agreement, including whether or not to grant the requested recommended sentence.
The court does not have to follow the recommendation or request outlined in the plea agreement, depending on the type of plea. The court can accept or reject the recommendation or defer a decision until the judge has reviewed the presentence report. If the judge rejects the plea agreement, the defendant has the opportunity to withdraw the plea.
If the plea agreement includes a dismissal of some charges or an agreement not to pursue potential charges, the court must find that doing so will not undermine the guidelines and that the remaining charges reflect the serious nature of the offense.
Get the Best Sentence You Can With the Help of an Experienced Tampa Federal Criminal Defense Lawyer
For help with federal sentencing in Tampa, including advocacy and input on the presentence report, representation at a sentencing hearing or negotiation of a plea agreement, call Scriven Law, P.A., at 813-226-8522 to discuss your case.