The U.S. Congress has used mandatory minimum sentences since it first enacted federal penal crimes. The 1790 Crimes Act created 23 federal crimes, seven of which carried a mandatory death sentence. Three of those crimes—treason, murder and piracy—still carry the death penalty today. There are now 189 federal crimes that carry a mandatory minimum sentence, the last one being enacted in 2012 which created a mandatory life term for a second offense in trafficking synthetic drugs.
A mandatory minimum sentence for a federal drug crime imposes a binding prison term for no less than a specific period of time. Critics of mandatory minimum sentencing charge that it undermines justice because it removes discretion from the sentencing judge who is in the best position to make the punishment fit both the individual and the circumstances of his or her particular offense.
Nearly 80 percent of all federal defendants facing a mandatory minimum sentence stand convicted of a drug crime. Below is a list of the most common federal crimes that carry a mandatory minimum prison term:
Drug trafficking: A person commits the crime of federal drug trafficking when he or she manufactures, distributes, dispenses, or possesses with intent to manufacture, distribute, or dispense any amount of a prohibited controlled substance.
Under the federal sentencing guidelines, the term “trafficking” is one that applies to situations that some may view as possession but is nonetheless punished as trafficking. Some federal crimes carry a mandatory minimum sentence of 5 years, 10 years, or even life imprisonment without the benefit of parole. To illustrate, if the drug crime involves one kilo or more of cocaine, 10+ grams of LSD, 1,000 kilos+ of marijuana or more than 50 grams of meth, a defendant will get a 10 year to life sentence, nothing less. If there is a death or a serious bodily injury during the drug crime, your penalty can increase from 20 years to life. The U.S. Sentencing Guidelines considers three primary factors in drug crimes: whether the offense harmed another person; whether there was a weapon involved; and the criminal history of the defendant.
Drug importation and exportation: In 2009, the Congress enacted the Controlled Substances Import and Export Act. Controlled substances are found in the schedule I or II list of banned substances, and non-narcotic controlled substances are found in schedule III, IV or V of banned substances. More commonly referred to as drug smuggling, a person involved in the importation or exportation of controlled substances is subject to a penalty of 5, 10, or 20 years, or even life imprisonment, with fines starting at $2 million and can reach as high as 20 million.
Weapons crimes: Federal drug or violent crimes involving the use of a firearm require stiff mandatory minimum sentencing, with 5 to 10 years being added to the underlying offense when the defendant is a first offender and 25 years when the defendant is a second offender. If the firearm is a machine gun or destructive device and the firearm is equipped with a silencer, 30 years is added to the underlying offense, and if the defendant is a second offender, a life sentence is added. The possession of a firearm or ammunition during a drug by a fugitive or a drug addict standing alone requires a minimum sentence of 15 years. And if a defendant is convicted of using armor piercing ammunition during a crime of violence or a drag trafficking offense, he or she has a mandatory minimum 15 years added to the underlying offense.
Immigration crimes: Under federal law, it is illegal to bring in or harbor certain types of aliens if you have reason to believe the illegal alien will commit a felony, or will be used for commercial or private financial gain. This federal immigration crime is punishable by a mandatory minimum sentence of 3 to 5 years. Further, the reentry into this country by someone previously deported for national security reasons carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years.
Aggravated identity theft: A conviction for aggravated identity theft can result in a mandatory minimum sentence 2 to 5 years added to the predicate offense.
Sex offenses and child pornography: A large array of offenses involving child sex offenses and/or child pornography are subject to a mandatory minimum sentence of 5 years being added to underlying offense, or a mandatory minimum sentence of 5 years, 10 years, 30 years, or even life imprisonment being imposed for the charged offense. Sentencing depends upon the age of the victim, the defendant’s offender status, and whether force, fraud or coercion was involved in the offense.
It is important to remember that whether or not a crime falls under the federal mandatory minimum sentencing scheme, most federal crimes are punished with severe sentencing, excessive fines, strict conditions of supervised release following incarceration, and even indefinite civil commitment in a specified treatment facility if the inmate is found to be dangerous or poses a risk to society because of violent sexual tendencies or mental illness. If you are being investigated or have been charged with a federal crime, you should contact a criminal defense attorney with experience before the federal courts immediately. Your attorney can help your understand the charges you are facing and assist you in developing the most aggressive defense possible.