Vanderbilt Law Review

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The drafters of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 19941 sought to mitigate the effects of harsh mandatory minimum sentences for defendants who play minor roles in nonviolent drug crimes by creating a "safety valve" provision. This provision offers first-time offenders a way out of mandatory minimum sentences based on their minor participation in drug-related federal crimes. Typically, these first-time offenders are "mules," people asked or hired by drug dealers to transport drugs. According to the provision, defendants are eligible for relief if, among other requirements, they "truthfully provid[e] to the government all information and evidence the defendant has concerning the offense."

As an illustration of how the safety valve provision works, consider a hypothetical case. Bob is approached by Marty, who gives Bob a bag and asks Bob to deliver it to a third party. The police stop Bob and find five kilos of cocaine in the bag. At trial, Bob pleads guilty and is convicted of possession with intent to distribute. This amount of cocaine carries a mandatory minimum sentence of ten years. Before the sentencing hearing, Bob meets with the prosecutor, who asks Bob the name of the person who gave him the bag. Bob suffers from extreme short-term memory loss and is unable to provide Marty's name to the prosecution. At the sentencing hearing, Bob can obtain relief from the mandatory minimum sentence if he can show that he meets the five requirements of the safety valve provision. To qualify for relief, Bob must show (1) that he is a first-time offender according to the Federal Sentencing Guidelines ("the Guidelines"), (2) that he did not use violence in the commission of the crime, (3) that no one was hurt by Bob's actions, (4) that Bob was a mere participant in the criminal activity, rather than an organizer, and (5) that Bob has truthfully provided the government with all of the information that he has regarding the offense. To prove the fifth requirement, Bob's attorney pays a psychiatrist to testify at the sentencing hearing regarding Bob's condition. To grant Bob safety valve relief, the judge will have to evaluate the psychiatrist's testimony and decide whether he believes that Bob has met the fifth requirement of truthfulness by providing all the information he has.'

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