Relevant Conduct Affects Sentencing in Federal Criminal Cases

Unlike state sentencing, federal sentencing can use what is referred to as ‘relevant conduct.’ Relevant conduct refers to the motivation behind the crime, not the crime itself. Relevant conduct allows a federal court to consider the motivation behind the crime an individual committed. An effective attorney should be able to mitigate the use of the United States Attorney’s Office presenting relevant conduct against a defendant. The Dennis Hastert case provides an excellent example as to how relevant conduct can be used against a defendant.

How Relevant Conduct Affected the Dennis Hastert Case

Dennis Hastert is a previous leader of the House of Representatives. Hastert was charged and federally convicted of wiring illegal payments to an alleged child victim of sexual assault. Hastert did this in an attempt to avoid taxation and cover up his crime. The molestations had occurred in the ‘60s and ‘70s; therefore, the state or federal authority could not charge him with the actual crimes because the statute of limitations had expired on the crimes Hastert committed. However, since it was federal court the government could apply relevant conduct – information related to relevant conduct under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines Manual1B1.3.

Presentence Investigation Report (PSR)

When the federal court is about to sentence an individual, a federal probation officer produces a Presentence Investigation Report. This report is commonly referred to as a PSR. The PSR is the investigation of the Federal United States Probation Office, not the U.S. Attorney’s Office. The Federal United States Probation Office and the U.S. Attorney’s Office almost seem like separate entities in federal court.

Besides investigating the biographical information about an individual who is awaiting sentencing in federal court, there is a section in the PSR entitled “Part A: The Offense – Charges and Conviction.” In this section, the investigator documents information related to the actions the defendant took when committing the crime. For example, in the Hastert case, the fact that he sent payments to one of his victims (as hush money) and structured these payments to avoid taxation is listed in this section. Furthermore, this section may be used to indicate the reasons an individual commits certain actions; in other words, the motivation behind the defendant’s actions.

How the PSR Can Affect Sentencing

The crime of hush money and avoiding taxation is considered a White Collar Crime and only calls for a sentence from 0 to 6 months in Federal Prison; however, this length of time is only a recommendation. The federal judge in Hastert’s case took his relevant conduct into consideration and sentenced him to a 15-month federal prison sentence.

Uncharged Crimes Can Be Considered

Hastert readily admitted in court to sexually molesting multiple boys during his stint as a high school wrestling coach/teacher. Even if Hastert had not admitted to sexually molesting the boys, the court could still consider these crimes because there was evidence that he committed them. The federal court does not require ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ for uncharged crimes, therefore, even with the slightest amount of evidence a judge can consider these uncharged crimes. That said, an attorney can attest, object or change the message on behalf of the defendant.

Drug Cases and Relevant Conduct

When an individual is charged with trafficking a particular drug, multiple drug purchases will have taken place: The U.S. Attorney’s Office will say that they are charging the individual with trafficking [type of drug] and they will give a total weight amount from the multiple purchases made by the undercover police officers and/or confidential informants. If, during any of these buys, the police officers or confidential informants did something illegal, that evidence may be held inadmissible in court. The attorney can file a motion to suppress the evidence stating that the officer violated the defendant’s Fourth Amendment right related to search and seizure; however, if the defendant is convicted because of the remaining drugs, the uncharged crime that was illegally attained can still be considered during sentencing.

Acceptance of Responsibility

When a defendant chooses to accept responsibility and avoid litigating the case, he or she receives federal sentencing credit for doing so: This can reduce an individual’s sentence by as much as three years. If a defendant chooses to go through with litigation, he or she loses the ability to benefit from the Acceptance of Responsibility provision.

The Importance of Hiring an Experienced Federal Attorney

An attorney who is not experienced in the ways that relevant conduct can affect a case could cause an individual to spend more time behind bars: An experienced federal attorney knows how to mitigate or present relevant conduct in such a way to benefit a defendant during the sentencing process.

The Federal Probation Interview

When a client pleads guilty to a federal indictment, there will be a federal probation interview: As experienced federal attorneys, we know how to effectively prepare clients for the questions they will be asked during this interview.

Presentence Investigation Report

An experienced federal attorney can control the message that is going on the PSR. Once the Presentence Investigation Report is published, we review it with our client: We may be able to contest and/or object to information on the report, including information related to relevant conduct. Furthermore, we might be able to add things to the report; for example, in the Hastert case, his attorneys addressed the fact that he was in a wheelchair and elderly.

Health Conditions and Sentencing

Defense attorneys can attempt to use health conditions as a means to delay sentencing. Consider that a defendant is undergoing chemotherapy treatments, the court may choose to delay his or her sentencing until these treatments are complete; moreover, the court could decide to sentence the individual to home confinement as opposed to jail.

One approach an experienced federal attorney may use is to present information documenting that the jail does not have the equipment necessary to treat the defendant’s condition. This tactic was used in the Hastert case; however, it was unsuccessful in that the judge ruled the federal facilities did have the means to treat Hastert’s medical issues. That said, this approach can be, and has been, a successful method used by our firm. If you are in need of an experienced federal attorney, contact our office today. We look forward to discussing your case with you.

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