Supreme Court Tightens Safety Valve Relief in Pulsifer v. United States

On March 15, 2024, the Supreme Court published its long-awaited opinion in Pulsifer v. United States. Mark Pulsifer pled guilty to distributing at least fifty grams of methamphetamine in violation of 21 U.S.C. § 841(a)(1). Due to his previous felony drug conviction, Pulsifer faced a mandatory minimum sentence of fifteen years unless he qualified for the safety valve relief under § 3553(f). While Pulsifer argued that he qualified for this sentence relief, the District Court held otherwise. On appeal from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eight Circuit, the Supreme Court affirmed the holding that Pulsifer’s criminal history rendered him ineligible for safety valve relief.

Under the “safety valve,” 18 U.S.C. §3553(f), the trial court must sentence qualifying defendants according to Federal Sentencing Guidelines, regardless of any statutory minimum sentences.  The criteria for this safety valve are listed in §3553(f)(1) – (5). Section (f)(1) focuses on the defendant’s prior criminal record. It states the Court may disregard statutory minimum sentences and impose a sentence under the United States Sentencing Guidelines if: “(1) the defendant does not have (A) more than four criminal history points, excluding any criminal history points resulting from a 1-point offense, as determined under the sentencing guidelines; (B) a prior 3-point offense, as determined under the sentencing guidelines; and (C) a prior 2-point violent offense, as determined under the sentencing guidelines.” (emphasis added).

Although Pulsifer’s criminal history met requirements (A) and (B) of the safety valve, he did not have a prior violent 2-point offense under requirement (C). Thus, Pulsifer argued he should qualify for relief since his history did not meet all three requirements. However, in its 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court held that a defendant must individually satisfy each of the three “safety valve” conditions to be eligible for sentencing relief.

In his dissent, Justice Neil Gorsuch explained how the Majority’s holding “guarantees that thousands more people in the federal criminal justice system will be denied a chance—just a chance—at an individualized sentence.” Gorsuch stated that sentence relief is “a chance Congress promised in the First Step Act” and that the Court’s holding contradicted that promise.

This case settles a disagreement among lower courts by embracing the traditional approach of strictly interpreting penal laws. This decision is expected to increase the application of mandatory minimum sentencing rules, reflecting a regression towards a uniform sentencing approach that disregards individual contexts. However, it remains to be seen if Congress will consider loosening these provisions.


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