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What Happens Before a Sentence is Imposed in Federal Court?

October 13, 2021

Federal criminal prosecution is a lengthy and complex process. Many months will pass between the entry of a verdict and the sentencing hearing, and it may seem as though the process has stopped. The entry of a judgment means the time limit to file post-trial motions begins.

More importantly, the official entry of a verdict initiates an active and crucial new phase in the judicial process: the presentence investigation (PSI) begins. The PSI is extensive, examining numerous aspects of an offender’s characteristics and background. The end result of the investigation is the presentence report (PSR), which the federal judge will use in the sentencing hearing. The PSR has a far-reaching impact and will affect the trajectory of an offender’s life in many ways.

 

Post-trial Motions

Anyone who disagrees with the verdict in their case because they believe it was affected by errors or misconduct has the right to file a post-trial motion. If a jury delivers a guilty verdict, the defense attorney will often file a post-trial motion requesting that the judge override a jury’s decision and either grant a new trial or acquit the defendant. A judge usually denies these motions. However, there are valid reasons for post-trial motions, such as when:

  • The evidence was clearly insufficient to sustain the verdict.
  • A juror engaged in improper conduct.
  • The court did not have proper jurisdiction.
  • New evidence has been discovered.
  • The court obtained the judgment fraudulently.

Most post-trial motions must be filed within 28 days of the entry of a verdict; certain motions have a one-year window.

The Presentence Investigation

The PSI begins shortly after the entry of a guilty verdict or guilty plea. An official of the federal probation department is responsible for conducting the investigation. The primary purpose of the PSI is to assist the court in determining an appropriate sentence for the offender. The probation officer will conduct interviews, gather applicable documentation and review court records to develop a thorough picture of the offender’s character, personal history, criminal background and other factors that will affect sentencing.

After becoming familiar with the court case, one of the first things the probation officer will do is schedule a presentence interview with the offender. Later, he may also interview family and friends of the offender, victims, employers, school officials, doctors, the defense attorney, prosecutor and others. All the information gathered will be evaluated and used to create the PSR for the sentencing hearing.

Interview of the Offender

The probation officer will question the offender about his motive and involvement in the offense. Other topics of importance to the investigation include:

  • Criminal history
  • Personal and family history
  • Education
  • Employment history
  • Financial status
  • Military status
  • Physical health issues
  • Mental health issues
  • Alcohol and drug use

The offender has a legal right to have his attorney present at the interview. Therefore, the probation officer must give the defense attorney notice and opportunity to attend.

Any statements made by the offender in the interview can be used in the PSR, including details that weren’t permissible in the trial, such as hearsay or evidence obtained illegally.

The Presentence Report

Finally, after all relevant information is collected and evaluated, the probation officer will compute the sentence just as a federal judge would: by applying the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines put forth by the United States Sentencing Commission.
The guidelines use a point system to arrive at a sentence, using the seriousness of the offense and the offender’s criminal history. Adjustments are made for specific situations, such as the offender’s acceptance of responsibility, obstruction of justice, and degree of participation in the crime.

The PSR will include:

  • All documents and information collected in interviews
  • Recommended sentence based on the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines Manual
  • Victim impact statements
  • Obstruction of justice adjustment if the offender made false statements in the presentence interview or otherwise obstructed justice
  • Acceptance of responsibility adjustment

After the PSR is complete, the probation officer will deliver it to the defense attorney and the prosecutor. Either party may object to elements of the report. The probation officer will consider the objections and either make revisions or have the sentencing judge resolve the issues at the sentencing hearing.

The Long-lasting Impact of the PSR

The PSR has an enormous impact on an offender’s life, especially if he is sentenced to federal imprisonment. The Federal Bureau of Prisons will use it to determine placement, programming and treatment needs. It can affect the offender’s:

  • Prison security level
  • Release date
  • Level of freedom upon release
  • Job opportunities and level of pay
  • Rehabilitation and education resources
  • Special physical or mental needs

A knowledgeable defense attorney who understands the federal justice system is essential in order to obtain the best possible sentencing outcome for an offender.

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