The “Safety Valve” Provision

Should the Government Get an Automatic Shut-Off Valve?

In this note the author identifies and analyzes a split in the federal circuit courts over section 5C1.2 in the United States Sentencing Guidelines. The Guidelines offer defendants relief from mandatory minimum sentences if the defendants satisfy the requirements of section 5C1.2, the safety valve provision. Courts have interpreted the requirements for safety valve relief differently.Specifically, the circuits disagree about whether a defendant who lies to the police before finally making a complete and truthful statement as required by the provision is eligible for safety valve relief. The First and Seventh Circuits disqualify defendants once they make false statements to the police. Even if a defendant in these circuits ultimately makes a complete and truthful statement within the required time frame, no safety valve sentence reduction is available to them. In contrast, the Second, Eighth and Ninth Circuits adopt a plain meaning interpretation and consider only whether the defendant makes a complete and truthful statement before the statutory deadline. Prior false statements do not disqualify defendants in these circuits. The author examines weaknesses in the first interpretation and suggests that the plain meaning interpretation is more aligned with accepted principles of statutory interpretation and the purpose of the safety valve provision.

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