In early February 2011, a Utah man was sentenced in federal court for possessing a handgun that was found to have been stolen from Nevada. The man was sentenced to 100 months in prison with a warning from the judge that a future felony conviction "will result in a more severe sentence."
The prosecution asked the judge to sentence the man to nearly 10 years in prison - the maximum allowed for a "habitual" or career criminal for committing this level of felony. The judge disagreed and sentenced the man to a fewer months in prison, but did remind the man that he was lucky to have not been classified as a career armed criminal - which would carry enhanced penalties.
In an effort to provide uniform justice throughout the federal justice system, the sentences imposed for federal crimes are governed by the federal sentencing guidelines. The guidelines provide a maximum amount of time that a person convicted of a crime can spend in prison. However, the guidelines also provide a minimum amount of prison time that the person must be sentenced to.
While the guidelines provide uniformity for sentencing, they also limit the discretion of the judge. Occasionally, the sentencing guidelines dictate overly severe sentences for the circumstances.
The guidelines also provide for enhanced sentences for special circumstances, such as being classified as a career offender.
To be classified as a career criminal, a judge must find several factors including:
- The defendant must be at least 18 years old at the time the offense in question was committed;
- The current offense must be a felony classified as a violent crime or controlled substance offense; and
- The defendant has been convicted of at least two prior felonies - either crimes of violence or controlled substance offenses.
The guidelines then set mandatory minimums and maximums for the felony in question, based on the level of the offense. The offense level will depend on the type of crime and the circumstances of the crime, including if minors where involved, if a weapon was involved or the amount of controlled substance involved.
Because federal sentencing guidelines include enhancements and mandatory minimums, it is of the utmost importance to speak with a criminal defense attorney as soon as you suspect you are under federal investigation or have been arrested for a federal crime. An attorney can help you defend your rights and seek the best possible outcome.