Federal Sentencing Guidelines: An Overview

Even if a person has previous experience fighting against charges in state criminal court, federal charges are another ballgame entirely. The laws and processes involved can be vastly different from state court, and the United States Sentencing Guidelines are a primary example of this. If you or a loved one is facing criminal charges in federal court, it is critical to have the assistance of a lawyer specifically experienced in federal defense. For an overview of the federal criminal judicial process, click here.

You may be familiar with North Carolina’s Structured Sentencing regime, which took effect in 1994. When a person is convicted of a crime, the judge looks to the North Carolina “Punishment Chart,” wherein you line up a person’s Prior Record Level with the Class of misdemeanor or felony to see the possible sentences available. A state court judge does not have the power to give a person a sentence higher or lower than the relevant ranges contained in the chart—the applicable ranges are considered “mandatory.” The one exception to this can be conviction for an offense that state law says has a mandatory minimum, such as drug trafficking.

The United States Sentencing Guidelines use a chart that can look deceptively similar to North Carolina’s, in that a person’s Prior Record Level (federally termed “Criminal History Category”) is on the top of the chart, with what is called an “Offense Level” running perpendicular. You see where the Category and Offense Level line up, and there is a range of sentence months in the corresponding square.

That is where the similarities between North Carolina’s sentencing and the Sentencing Guidelines end.

First, the Sentencing Guidelines are not “mandatory.” In 1995 the United States Supreme Court ruled that the Guidelines are simply “advisory”—meaning that the judge can use them as a starting point in deciding what individualized sentence to fashion for a particular defendant, but he or she is not bound by them. The judge can go either above, or below, a person’s guideline range. This usually comes after either the prosecutor or defense attorney makes a motion for a “departure” or “variance” based on a variety of aggravating or mitigating factors.

Second, the way a person’s Criminal History Category is calculated under the Guidelines is far different than the way their Prior Record Level is calculated in state court. The Sentencing Guidelines contain dozens of nuanced rules directing how to tabulate a person’s Criminal History Category. Each prior conviction is assigned a certain number of points based on the sentence you received for that conviction. For example, a prior sentence of less than 60 days imprisonment that was given within 10 years before the commission of the federal offense generally receives two points. However, certain convictions, such as ones for Reckless Driving, Giving False Information to a Police Officer, Trespassing and Prostitution, do not count. In addition, the Guidelines’ rules dictate whether convictions over a certain age can be counted. Also unlike in state court, the Guidelines require that an additional two points be added if you were under almost any type of supervision for a previous case at the time of the federal offense, such as supervised probation or even unsupervised probation.

Third, the way a person’s Offense Level is calculated under the Guidelines is unlike anything in North Carolina’s sentencing. In state court, after a person’s Prior Record Level is calculated, you simply look to a person’s Class of felony in figuring out the available sentences. The Class of felony is clearly provided by statute. (For example, Simple Possession of Cocaine, a Schedule II Controlled Substance, is a Class I felony). By contrast, a person’s Offense Level under the Guidelines is calculated according to the Guidelines specific to that offense. Each offense starts out with a specific “Base Offense Level,” and then certain enhancements, if applicable, are added to that. For example, consider a federal conviction for possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, where the gun in question is a standard, unaltered pistol without a high-capacity magazine. The relevant Guideline generally provides for a Base Offense Level of 14 if you have no prior convictions for crimes of violence or drug offenses. The Guideline then provides all sorts of enhancements that will be added onto that number, such as a two-point enhancement for the firearm being stolen.

There are also Guidelines that provide for reductions in base offense level based on mitigating factors, such as having a minor role in the offense (often applied in drug conspiracy cases) and acceptance of responsibility.

A federal sentencing hearing is much like a trial itself as the prosecutor and defense argue their respective positions on what a person’s guideline range, and ultimate sentence, should be. Prior to sentencing, but after you are convicted (either by trial or by taking a plea), the United States Probation Office prepares what is called the Presentence Investigation Report. In that report, the probation officer pulls your entire criminal history (including out of state convictions) and compiles what he or she thinks your Criminal History Category, Base Offense Level, and ultimate guideline sentence should be. You and your attorney then have a set period of time to file objections to any errors in the report. The officer then publishes the Final Presentence Investigation Report. That final report is used by the judge at sentencing, while the prosecutor and defense argue their respective objections. The probation officer’s calculation of your guideline range is not binding on the court—only the judge can rule on what your actual guideline range and sentence are. However, it is absolutely crucial to have the assistance of an attorney experienced in federal criminal defense and these processes to ensure every avenue for receiving a lesser sentence is exhaustively pursued.

Please do not hesitate to contact our office for an experienced federal criminal defense lawyer today. Call our lawyers at Arnold & Smith, PLLC, at (704) 370-2828 to evaluate your options or fill out our contact form. Now taking cases throughout North Carolina with offices in Uptown Charlotte, Mooresville and Monroe.