2014: Reduced Mandatory Minimum Sentences for Federal Drug Crimes

The War on Drugs reached a peak in the 1980s. Drug lords and cartels had begun mass infiltration into the United States with product and violence. At a time when violence and drugs flourished in the U.S., harsh penalties were placed on drug offenders.

Time has progressed and state laws have changed in regard to drug possession, distribution, and intent to distribute. Up until recently, extreme mandatory minimum sentences for federal drug crimes were still in place. We have seen a number of high profile cases in which defendants have been slapped with overly harsh mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenders (some include decades worth of sentencing and other even life prison sentences). In these cases, defendants are unable to have their sentence threshold lessened, even if the judge believes mitigating factors deem the punishment too severe.

Fortunately for drug offenders, change to this archaic legislation is already in Congress. More power is to be given to federal judges to determine punishment suitable to match the offense. By unanimous vote in July 2014, the USSC approved retroactive drug sentencing reductions for federal drug offenses. In April 2014, the USSC passed a bill that states all federal drug offenders sentencing will abide by the USSC Guidelines Manuel. Retroactive reduced sentences can be petitioned by inmates and cannot take effect until November 1st, 2015.

Previously, minimum mandatory sentences were set at 5-year, 10-year, and 20-year prison terms. Additionally, time can be added for other mitigating factors including previous history of violent crimes or drug charges. This has since been revised to 2, 5, and 10-year sentences. External to this new legislation are drug offenders whose crimes led to other violence or death. Harsher punishments will remain mandatory for these offenders.

In a study conducted by Human Rights Watch, almost half of defendants who are charged with federal drug crimes are carrying out “low-level functions”. These roles include couriers and street level distributors. Three-fourths of those individuals received convictions resulting in mandatory minimum sentences. Contributing to this legislation is the gross overpopulation of the U.S. prison system. In 2012, the prison population stood at 2.3 million and nearly 7 million under federal supervision as inmate, parolees, or probationers provoking action from Attorney General Eric Holder starting in 2013.

Since the vote, the Dept. of Justice has been faced with an overwhelming number of petitions seeking re-sentencing. Priority is being placed on petitions based on 10+ years served, likelihood of lesser sentence if convicted today, lack of criminal history, good conduct, and absence of violence in prison.

If charged with a drug crime, it is important to seek legal advice to ensure you’ve explore current and local laws to improve your defense. A strong line of defense is formed with legal expertise and experience and will ensure avoidance of unfair conviction or excessive sentencing in Texas.

The Six Steps Leading To Trial in Civil Court

The first step to begin a lawsuit in Texas is to finding a lawyer who is knowledgeable and experienced in the area of your legal concern.

Step 1: When considering a lawsuit in the state of Texas, it’s best to select a lawyer whose expertise surrounds your area of concern.

Step 2: Filing an original petition or complaint officially begins the lawsuit process. Included in the complaint are the facts of the case. The complaint will tell a story and outline legal issues associated with the potential defendant. This is a request to the court to directly serve the defendant who has a set time to respond.

Step 3: When the defendant enters his answer, so begins the Discovery Phase. This process can take anywhere from months to years. Rules of engagement are fairly loose within the Discovery Phase allowing for mass amounts of evidence to be revealed. Discoveries include depositions, disclosure of witnesses, experts, documents, records, and other important information.

Step 4: Most Texas courts will require both sides to mediate before incurring the cost of going to trial. With an experienced, neutral party present, both sides will present their case and seek the advice from the neutral mediator. If going to trial, both sides will attempt to gauge the other’s strengths and weaknesses. Often, this is a good indicator of trial outcome.

Step 5: Pre-trial conferences allow both sides direct interaction with the presiding judge. This takes place one week before the trial and is a final attempt to settle out of the courtroom. All three sides agree to the disputed and undisputed issues and present the evidence they intend to present. In turn, the judge is able to plan a rough trial timeline.

Step 6: If all fails, you are headed to trial and you case will be placed on the court’s docket.

Family Violence Under Texas Law

Self-defense under Texas law states: “A person is justified in using force against another when and to the degree he reasonably believes the force is immediately necessary to protect himself against the others use or attempted use of unlawful force.”

The jury determines what is “reasonable” based on the testimony and physical evidence. This creates more complication and is therefore less straightforward as most evidence within a family violence case is based on he-said, she-said.

Family law cases create a unique environment because most of the evidence is hearsay from both sides mixed with neutral witnesses. This lawful process creates opportunity for a strong defense as the prosecution must prove reasonable doubt based on verbal recounts. In turn, the environment creates challenges for the prosecution to eliminate all doubt based on the truthfulness perceived from biased and neutral witnesses.

Victims who play chief witnesses in the case present challenges for the prosecution. If they are cooperating, their testimony can be easily thrown out based on victim motive. Naturally, there are many circumstances that can cause strong emotion on both sides. Evidence in a criminal trial can be used additionally as evidence in the impending civil cases when deciding custody and other financial domestic outcomes. Often, living situation plays a chief role in the validation of the victim’s testimony. If any sense of vengeful motive is detected within testimony, statements can quickly be thrown out. Jury is well prefaced with this information prior to trial. Have they recent moved out? How long have they co-habited? Do they have impending divorce, separation, or custody cases?

Unique to family violence cases, previous misdemeanor convictions can serve as validation to increase judgment to felony charges. In other misdemeanor cases, previous convictions rarely can be admitted based on “you did it then, you’ve done it now” or “you did it then, therefore, it’s more likely you’ve done it now.” However, family violence case prosecution must introduce this information in order to boost the offense from misdemeanor to felony.

Also unique to family violence cases is the relationship between both parties. In the eyes of the juror, both sides could be at fault for the deterioration of the relationship and the cause for the incident. In other violent crimes, the offender and victim are more clearly defined. When plaintiff and defendant are on somewhat level playing fields, the jurors take more into account the character of the individuals. Who seems more credible based on the information presented and the way the information was presented? Hearsay testimony from both sides and neutral parties create strong reasonable doubt.

Family violence cases in Texas provide the opportunity for both sides to explain their side of the story. In the eyes of a juror, the testimony of the defendant is often the more logical whereas the testimony of the victim more emotional. Hearing the defendant side of the story can often create a logical and reasonable doubt among jurors.

Those who testify must maintain composure during rigorous cross examination. Testifying carries risks. These risks are thoroughly expressed to both sides before they take the stand. Aggressive lines of questioning lead many to lose their cool. Jurors sense aggression and will connect aggressive behavior in the court room to habitual aggressive behavior outside the courtroom. However, calm and rational responses from defendants will create a rapport with jurors and helps create reasonable doubt. Emotional outbursts certainly lead to conviction. The goal of the defendant is to turn the table and make the cross examiner seem like the aggressor.