Seventh Circuit Review


Congress passed the safety valve to mitigate the disparate and often harsh sentences mandatory minimums impose on low-level drug defendants. But judicial interpretation continues to impose disparate sentences. In 2014, in United States v. Acevedo-Fitz, the Seventh Circuit reaffirmed its position in an ongoing circuit split regarding the safety valve. The safety valve requires defendants to meet five criteria, the fifth—sometimes called the heart of the safety valve—requires defendants provide complete truthful disclosure to prosecutors prior to sentencing. Judges interpret this requirement as imposing a burden on defendants to prove they met all five criteria without requiring the government to prove a defendant failed to provide complete truthful disclosure.

The circuit split regards whether a defendant may lie before telling the truth and still qualify for the safety valve. The Seventh Circuit holds one lie precludes safety valve relief. It imposes an additional restriction, essentially adding a prerequisite that defendants substantially assist prosecutors. However, Congress passed the safety valve because the substantial assistance provision failed to assist low-level defendants, and the plain language of the safety valve imposes no requirements that the truthful disclosure assist the government. This reading frustrates Congressional intent, as many other circuits recognize. To comport with Congressional intent, the Seventh Circuit should utilize a plain-language reading of the statute, and not superimpose a substantial assistance prerequisite on the fifth element of the safety valve.

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