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Last Updated on: 20th October 2023, 09:55 am
If you’ve ever wondered how federal sentencing enhancements work and what mandatory minimums are all about, you’re not alone. This stuff can be super confusing, even for lawyers! But I’ll try to break it down in simple terms so we can all understand it better.
First off, what is a sentencing enhancement? Basically, it’s an extra punishment that gets added on top of the normal sentence for a particular crime. Congress passes laws creating these enhancements when they want to crack down on certain types of offenses.
For example, let’s say someone gets convicted of robbery. Robbery usually carries a sentence of 5 years in prison. But if the robber had a gun during the crime, there might be a sentencing enhancement that adds an extra 3 years to the sentence for using a firearm. So that robber would end up with 5 years for the robbery plus 3 years for the gun enhancement, for a total of 8 years behind bars.
Sentencing enhancements come in all shapes and sizes. Some of the most common ones are:
So enhancements let Congress single out certain factors that make a crime worse in their opinion, and ramp up the punishment for those offenses. Most enhancements add anywhere from 1 to 10 extra years to a defendant’s sentence.
Sentencing enhancements don’t automatically apply to every defendant convicted of a particular crime. The prosecutor has to actually charge the enhancement in the indictment and prove the facts supporting it during the trial or plea hearing.
For instance, if a defendant pleads guilty to bank robbery, the plea agreement may specify that a 2-year enhancement for use of a firearm will apply. The prosecutor would then have to present evidence showing the defendant did in fact use a gun during the robbery, like eyewitness testimony or surveillance footage.
If the evidence doesn’t support the enhancement, the judge can refuse to apply it at sentencing. Defendants often argue against enhancements to try and reduce their prison time. But overall, enhancements are used very frequently and can have a huge impact on sentences.
Now this is where things get even trickier! Many federal crimes carry mandatory minimum sentences that judges are required to impose no matter what. Let’s look at how mandatory minimums work with sentencing enhancements:
Going back to our bank robbery example, let’s say the normal sentence is 5 years, but there’s a 7-year mandatory minimum if a gun was involved. So with the 2-year enhancement for the firearm, the total sentence calculation would be:
But wait – the mandatory minimum for bank robbery with a gun is 7 years, which is higher than the total sentence. So in this case, the mandatory minimum overrides the normal sentence plus enhancement. The defendant would get 7 years total, not 9 years.
In other cases, the enhancement might stack on top of the mandatory minimum to extend the sentence. For example, if the mandatory minimum was 5 years, plus a 3 year enhancement for the gun, the total would be 8 years because the enhancement makes the sentence longer than the minimum.
As you can see, enhancements and mandatory minimums interact in complex ways. The bottom line is that enhancements can sometimes get trumped by a higher mandatory minimum, but other times they will increase the sentence beyond the minimum. It all depends on the specific numbers in each case.
While sentencing enhancements are designed to punish criminals more harshly, they’ve become controversial in some respects:
Some judges have spoken out against mandatory sentencing enhancements for these reasons. But so far, most enhancements have been upheld as constitutional and remain on the books.
To understand how sentencing enhancements work in practice, let’s look at some real cases:
Defendant Weldon Angelos was convicted of selling $350 worth of marijuana on three separate occasions. Normally, this crime would carry a sentence of about 1-2 years. But because Angelos had a gun on him each time, he got hit with a 55 year mandatory minimum sentence under the federal gun enhancement laws! The trial judge resigned in protest over having to impose such an excessive punishment.
Keith Young was part of a drug conspiracy that distributed crack cocaine in Washington D.C. His own role was relatively minor – he delivered a half-kilogram of drugs. But because of the amount of drugs the whole group distributed, Young faced a mandatory life sentence under the federal drug laws. The judge said that life sentence was “not appropriate” for Young’s conduct, but he had no choice but to impose it.
Defendant Looney was convicted of possession of child pornography. His guidelines sentence was 27-33 months. But the prosecutor invoked a sentencing enhancement based on a prior conviction, which increased the sentencing range to 210-262 months. The judge said he would have sentenced Looney to 24 months based on the facts, but imposed the 210 month mandatory minimum required by the enhancement.
These cases illustrate how severe federal sentencing enhancements can radically increase sentences based on factors outside the defendant’s control, and force judges to impose years or even decades more time than they think is fair.
Sentencing enhancements and mandatory minimums are complex issues even lawyers struggle to understand. While enhancements are meant to punish crimes more harshly, they also limit judicial discretion and sometimes seem disproportionate to the offense. Understanding how enhancements work provides insight into the controversies surrounding federal sentencing laws. Hopefully this explanation demystifies these concepts a bit! Let me know if you have any other questions.
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