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What are the Penalties if You are Convicted in Federal Court?
Federal crimes are prosecuted in federal court and typically carry far more severe penalties than those levied by state courts in California. If you or someone in your family is convicted of drug manufacturing, RICO violations, embezzlement, mortgage fraud or another major federal crime, you could be exposed to a lengthy prison sentence and massive fines, among other devastating consequences. The government takes violations of federal law extremely seriously and the best way to protect yourself against federal charges is to hire a knowledgeable federal criminal defense attorney to represent your case. At Federal Criminal Defense Lawyers, we offer prospective clients a free initial consultation, so don’t wait to call.
Crimes Prosecuted in Federal Court
Some federal charges are similar to state charges. For instance, drug distribution can be charged as a state crime under California law or as a federal crime under federal law, depending on the specific details of the case, namely the type and quantity of the drug. If you have been arrested for a crime, it is important to understand that there are some major differences between a state crime and a federal crime and to know whether state law or federal law applies to the criminal conduct you are accused of committing. Generally speaking, a crime may fall under federal jurisdiction if the defendant is arrested by a federal agent, if a federal law enforcement agency is investigating the crime, if the crime takes place on federal property, and/or if the criminal conduct violates federal law. The following are some examples of criminal offenses that can result in federal prosecution:
- Drug trafficking
- Drug conspiracy
- Drug manufacturing
- Drug distribution
- Drug importation/exportation
- RICO violations
- Internet crimes
- Money laundering
- Weapons offenses
- Immigration fraud
- Bankruptcy fraud
- Mortgage fraud
United States Sentencing Guidelines
The penalties associated with a federal conviction typically involve much longer sentences than the penalties associated with a conviction in state court. This is generally because the maximum punishment for federal crimes is significantly higher than the maximum punishment for state crimes, and also because there are strict federal sentencing guidelines in place in the United States. The United States Sentencing Guidelines were created by the U.S. Sentencing Commission to eliminate discrepancies in sentencing for the same crimes tried in courts nationwide and these are the guidelines that district judges are expected to consult when sentencing federal offenders.
How Do the Guidelines Work?
The guidelines work by assigning what is known as an “offense level” to a federal crime, taking into account the nature and severity of the crime. Each type of crime is assigned a base offense level, which is the starting point for determining the appropriate sentence for the offense, and this base level (and the sentence the defendant receives) can then be increased or decreased based on the specific characteristics of the case. For instance, the crime of embezzlement has a base offense level of six. If the fraud involves a loss of more than $6,500, the base level increases by two, bringing it up to eight. If the fraud involves a loss of more than $15,000, the base level increases by four, bringing it up to 10. There are also certain adjustments that can increase or decrease the offense level. These can include victim-related adjustments, obstruction of justice or the offender’s role in the crime. For instance, if the offender played a minor role in the crime, the offense level may decrease. However, if the offender obstructed justice, the offense level may increase.
The sentencing guidelines also assign offenders to one of six Criminal History Categories based on the existence of any prior convictions. Category I is the least serious category. This is the category assigned to many first-time offenders. Category VI is the most serious category, typically reserved for offenders with serious criminal records. The appropriate sentencing guideline range for a specific criminal offense is determined by finding the point on the U.S. Sentencing Commission’s sentencing table where the final offense level (the base offense level plus or minus any specific offense characteristics and adjustments) and the Criminal History Category intersect. For example, an offender with a Criminal History Category of I and an offense level of 10 would have a sentencing guideline range of 6-12 months.
Are the Sentencing Guidelines Mandatory?
The U.S. Sentencing Guidelines that apply to federal cases were once mandatory, which meant that district judges did not have the discretion to sentence a defendant to a term of imprisonment outside of the ranges put forth in the sentencing guidelines. Today, district judges are not bound by law to apply the guidelines, but they are required to consult the guidelines and take them into consideration when sentencing. The Federal Sentencing Statute (18 U.S.C. § 3553(a)) states that the court, in determining the appropriate sentence to be imposed upon a federal defendant, shall consider the following factors:
(1) the nature and circumstances of the offense and the history and characteristics of the defendant;
(2) the need for the sentence imposed—
(A) to reflect the seriousness of the offense, to promote respect for the law, and to provide just punishment for the offense;
(B) to afford adequate deterrence to criminal conduct;
(C) to protect the public from further crimes of the defendant; and
(D) to provide the defendant with needed educational or vocational training, medical care, or other correctional treatment in the most effective manner;
(4) the kinds of sentence and the sentencing range established for—
(A) the applicable category of offense committed by the applicable category of defendant as set forth in the guidelines;
(5) any pertinent policy statement;
(6) the need to avoid unwarranted sentence disparities among defendants with similar records who have been found guilty of similar conduct; and
(7) the need to provide restitution to any victims of the offense.
Penalties for Federal Offenses
A conviction for a federal criminal offense carries stiff penalties that can change the course of your entire life. In most cases, the fines and prison sentences are far more severe in federal cases than those imposed by the court in state cases, even for similar conduct. Some of the penalties that can be handed down by the court in federal cases involving the crimes listed above include the following:
- Drug trafficking (21 U.S. Code § 841) – Five years to life in federal prison, depending on the type and quantity of drugs and the defendant’s criminal history. Fines can range from hundreds of thousands of dollars to upwards of $75 million, depending on the circumstances of the case.
- Money laundering (18 U.S. Code § 1956) – Up to 20 years in federal prison, plus fines of up to $500,000 or twice the value of the property involved in the money laundering transaction.
- RICO violations (18 U.S. Code § 1962) – Up to 20 years in federal prison or life imprisonment, depending on the maximum penalty for the underlying (predicate) crime. The government also has the authority to seize any assets or property related to the alleged racketeering activity. There is also a civil component to the RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) statute, which allows any person affected by the RICO violation to bring a civil claim for treble damages.
- Bankruptcy fraud (18 U.S. Code § 157) – Up to five years in prison, plus a potential fine of up to $250,000. Bankruptcy fraud charges may apply even if the defendant only intended to commit bankruptcy fraud, whether or not the target crime was successful.
- Weapons offenses (18 U.S. Code §§ 921-931) – Incarceration in federal prison for between one and 30 years, depending on the nature and severity of the crime. Fines can range from $1,000 to $10,000.
How an Experienced Criminal Defense Attorney Can Help
The legal, personal and professional implications of a federal conviction are serious and long-lasting. Most federal prosecutions involve felony charges and if you are found guilty of a federal crime like money laundering, drug trafficking or bankruptcy fraud, you could spend years in prison without the possibility of parole and pay thousands, if not millions, of dollars in fines. And even after you have served your sentence and re-entered society, you will still have a felony conviction on your record, which can cost you your personal and professional reputation, limit your employment opportunities, and affect your right to vote and obtain or possess a firearm, among other collateral consequences. Now that you know about some of the penalties you could face if you are convicted in federal court, it is just as important to understand that being charged with a federal offense does not mean you will be convicted and sentenced to years or decades in federal prison. By hiring a knowledgeable criminal defense attorney with experience representing clients in federal court, you can significantly improve your chances of avoiding a conviction or reducing your exposure to severe penalties.
Consult Our Federal Criminal Defense Lawyers Today
If you are facing federal charges for a crime like money laundering, drug trafficking or fraud, it is imperative that you enlist the help of a skilled criminal defense attorney with a proven record of success representing clients in federal court. When you retain the services of our trusted criminal defense attorneys at Federal Criminal Defense Lawyers, we will work tirelessly to protect your rights and represent your best interests both inside and outside of the courtroom. To learn more about your rights when facing criminal charges in federal court, contact our dedicated legal team today.