New York Federal Criminal Practice Blog
November 6, 2009

EDNY Judge Assails Guidelines' Denial of Safety Valve Relief to Individuals with Minor Records

“Minimal [statistical] impact,” as Judge Weinstein points out in United States v. Feaster, 2009 WL 2757157 (E.D.N.Y. August 26, 2009), is no consolation to the individual who is impacted.  Just because an inequity is infrequent doesn’t make it any less an inequity, or “is no less real and no less unfair for the few ill-fated defendants facing what can only be considered a ‘pothole on the road to justice.’”  Speaking about the quirks of fate that affect one’s eligibility for the safety valve (the escape hatch from mandatory minimums in drug cases) – but in words that could address so many other quirks of inequity in the Guidelines – he concludes: “To take away years of a young man’s life based on bureaucratic rigidity under the banner of ‘criminal justice’ is an intolerable cruelty.”


Feaster pled guilty to crack distribution, and would have avoided a mandatory minimum ten-year prison sentence under the statutory “safety valve” provision but for the fact that he had three criminal history points – two of which stemmed from a 2001 disorderly conduct conviction involving dice playing when he was eighteen years old.  The “safety valve” provision applies only if a defendant has no more than one criminal history point, and the Guidelines specifically preclude a sentencing judge from reducing the defendant’s criminal history score in order to make him safety-valve eligible.  


Judge Weinstein concluded reluctantly that “[b]inding decisions of the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit require denial of safety valve relief” for Mr. Feaster, so he sentenced him to the mandatory minimum120 months.  He noted, however, that he would have imposed a sentence of 60 months if his hands were not tied, and he called for the Second Circuit and the Sentencing Commission to revisit the issue of minor records precluding individuals from safety valve relief.  Taking to heart the Supreme Court’s call for sentencing courts to sentence an individual, he took no solace from the Commission’s 2009 study, which concluded that only “a very small percentage” of minor offenders were affected by this inequity.  In addition to the lines excerpted above, he pointed out that it “also violates the fundamental statutory requirement to consider in sentencing ‘the need to avoid unwarranted sentence disparities among defendants with similar records who have been found guilty of similar conduct.’”

Lawyers: Joseph Kilada (defendant); AUSAs David Bitkower, Elizabeth Latif, William Schaeffer

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