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Eleventh Circuit Narrowly Interprets Safety Valve Statute

By Robyn Hagan Cain on May 18, 2012 4:04 PM

Lawyers have a love-hate relationship with mandatory minimum sentencing: Prosecutors love it, and defense attorneys hate it. But mandatory minimum sentencing isn’t entirely rigid; there is a safety valve statute that lets courts give an offender less time in prison than the mandatory minimum requires.

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals interprets the safety valve statute strictly, noting that “by its terms, the safety valve provision applies only to convictions under five specified [drug] offenses:”

1. Manufacturing and distribution offenses under 21 U.S.C. §841.

2. Simple possession under 21 U.S.C. §844.

3. Attempt and conspiracy under 21 U.S.C. §846.

4. Import and export under 21 U.S.C. §960.

5. Attempt and conspiracy to import or export under 21 U.S.C. §963.

None of those provisions, however, applied to Edgar Purtez-Purtez, today's Eleventh Circuit appellant. Purtez pleaded guilty to conspiring to possess with intent to distribute and aiding and abetting the possession with intent to distribute five or more kilograms of cocaine while aboard a vessel.

Here, Purtez was charged with and convicted for violations under U.S.C. Title 46, but the safety valve statute does not mention any Title 46 offenses. Purtez nonetheless claimed he was entitled to sentencing relief because the Title 46 offenses for which he was convicted reference the penalty provisions of 21 U.S.C. §960, and section 960 is specifically listed in the safety valve statute.

The Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that it's the statute under which a defendant is charged -- not the one under which he is convicted -- that triggers the safety valve statute.

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