Thursday, January 26th, 2006

Eligibility for Safety Valve Unaffected by Booker

United States v. Holguin, Docket No. 04-5277-cr (2d Cir. Jan. 26, 2006) (Winter, Straub, Raggi): In this opinion, the Circuit finally and unsurprisingly slams the door on Booker-based challenges to the district court’s determination of a defendant’s eligibility for the safety valve under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(f). Here, Holguin argued inter alia that in light of Booker, the fact that the district court determined that he was an organizer or leader within the meaning of U.S.S.G. § 3B1.1 did not disqualify him from safety-valve relief under 18 U.S.C. § 3553(f)(4) because this provision itself “should be deemed advisory after Booker because the Supreme Court struck down the mandatory nature of the Guidelines” in its entirety. Op. 3. The Circuit rejected this argument, concluding that neither Booker nor the Apprendi-Blakely line of cases was implicated because “judicial fact-finding as to whether a defendant was a supervisor or leader (and thus barred from or entitled to safety valve relief) does not permit a higher maximum sentence to be imposed; the only effect of the judicial fact-finding is either to reduce a defendant’s sentencing range or to leave the sentencing range alone, not to increase it.” Op. 11 (emphases in original).

The only bright note in the opinion is the Government’s concession that once a defendant satisfies the safety valve, the district court should treat the Guidelines as advisory in light of Booker. Though this contradicts the plain language of Section 3553(f) (district court “shall impose” a sentence “pursuant to” the Guidelines if defendant qualifies for safety valve), and though Booker itself did not “excise” this provision, the Government conceded that this provision “should be interpreted to mean that a district court [need only] ‘consider’ the Guidelines in an advisory fashion” once the mandatory minimum is no longer, er, mandatory. Op. 3-4.

The Court did not ultimately reach this issue since Holguin failed to qualify for the safety valve. However, the opinion strongly suggests that the Court agrees with the Government on this issue and that once a defendant satisfies the conditions for safety-valve relief, the district court should consider the Guidelines as only advisory in imposing sentence. Op. 6.

UPDATE: Professor Berman has once again beaten us to the punch in our own backyard (early morning mixed metaphor) — click here for his discussion of the case (which mentions the opinion’s use of an odd neologism — “a condition of the guilt of the crime” — for the far simpler term “element”).

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