Articles on South Carolina Law

Federal Sentencing Hearings: What to Expect

by | May 14, 2018 | Criminal Defense, Federal Crimes in SC

If you or a loved one has an upcoming federal sentencing hearing, you may have some questions about this process. Because of the seriousness of most any federal case, the sentencing hearing is probably the most important thing that will happen in the case.

Your life’s on the line. Your freedom is at stake. Your entire future can depend on this hearing.

What will be the consequences of the plea?

Will you be able to vote? Will you be able to get a job?

Will you be able to see your family and friends again? Where will you be housed if you are sent to prison?

Will the Judge be fair? Will you get to talk to the judge during this hearing?

Federal Sentencing Hearings:

A federal sentencing hearing is a hearing that you go to in federal court to find out what the punishment will be for the crime that you have already been found guilty of or plead guilty to.

By this time in your case, you will have either plead guilty or you have been found guilty by a jury. That’s why a sentencing hearing is not the time for you to proclaim your innocence.

The Judge at the sentencing hearing is the person who will decide what will happen as your punishment for your crime.

What is a federal sentencing hearing for?

At a federal sentencing hearing, a judge determines the penalties or punishment for your crime. This hearing will be held at the federal courthouse where you either had your trial or plead guilty.

The hearing will be at a separate date and time from your guilty plea or trial. This is a very big difference from sentencing in a state, magistrate or municipal court in SC. Typically a federal sentencing hearing occurs at least 90 days after you are found guilty at trial or plead guilty. On the other hand, if you were being sentenced in state court, you would most likely be sentenced on the same date and time you are found guilty.

The Timing of Federal Sentencing Hearings

You should expect there to be a minimum of 90 days between the time you are found guilty and your sentencing hearing. The waiting period between a guilty plea hearing and a sentencing hearing is typically a very stressful time for people. There’s understandably a lot of anxiety about wanting to get their case behind them, wanting closure, trying to make arrangements for the future, for their family members, and to get their affairs in order.

Who will pay the bills, take care of the children, maintain a place for their family to live and how will their family survive with the primary breadwinner in prison?

Your federal court attorney can’t do too much to speed up this process, but it might help if you know some reasons why it’s taking so long. Some examples could be the hold up with obtaining the Presentence Investigation or Presentence Report) (commonly known as PSI or PSRI in SC).

Before the Hearing: What Happens?

PSI Reports: Presentence Investigations

The Judge will order this PSI, which is a type of report before the sentencing hearing. The PSI is prepared, drafted and written by an agent that works for the U.S. Probation Office. The U.S. Probation Office does not work for the Judge, but the Judge will review the PSI. The PSI has key info that will be used in determining your sentence. Your attorney and the US Attorney will receive a copy of the PSI prior to the Sentencing Hearing.

What’s in the PSI report?

  • Info about the person being sentenced (could include their childhood, struggles they have had, health problems, military service, education, family, addiction, rehab, employment history, and many other important individual facts)
  • Details about the offense (how many people were involved, quantity of drugs involved, time span of the crime, etc.)
  • Victim information (was anyone injured or killed as a result of the crime, is anyone owed money as a result of the crime (also known as restitution), how many victims are there? Ages of victims? Does the victim want to prosecute this case? What is the victim’s relationship to the Defendant? Does the victim wish for the Judge to order there be no contact between the Defendant and the Victim?)

What is a PSI report?

So what takes so long between your guilty plea hearing and your sentencing hearing?

Often the hold up is the PSI. Your lawyer does not write the PSI; an agent with the United States Pretrial Services will draft the report. Often these very important people are extremely busy with many reports being due. Also, they have so many other job responsibilities other than writing reports.

If you are in jail, the agent will have to visit you in jail in person to obtain the large amount of personal information that will be included in the report. You have the right to have your attorney present during this meeting. You may want your attorney to be involved in this process because your attorney probably knows you, your family, your specific circumstances, and important events much better than the agent. You will want your attorney to help you highlight the important factors in this report.

The PSR is very important. The sentencing judge will be looking at this report prior to your sentencing. Once the PSR is drafted by the agent, it will be sent (often emailed) to your attorney and to the US attorney. The US Attorney and your attorney have a certain amount of days to respond to the agent with any objections or proposed revisions to the PSR. Once the objections are considered by the agent, the revisions will either be made or the sentencing Judge will resolve any discrepancies in the PSR at your sentencing hearing. The Judge may listen to arguments from your attorney and from the US attorney to make these decisions. The Judge will also have many valuable resources to research the issues ahead of time.

During The Hearing: What Happens?

You will want to have an attorney represent you at this hearing. The sentencing hearing begins with the Judge entering the courtroom. Everyone should stand when the Judge enters the courtroom to show respect for the Judge. The Judge will tell everyone when they may be seated. Once seated, the order of the hearing can depend on the individual judge. Typically the courtroom clerk will swear everyone in before they speak. The lawyers are not sworn in because they are officers of the Court.

The sentencing hearing will be in a public federal courthouse so anyone can attend unless there are orders issued by a Judge prohibiting people from being there.

The Judge will likely ask if there are any unresolved issues between the US Attorney and your attorney regarding the PSR. If there are issues, each lawyer will have a turn to argue their side of the story. The Judge will then render a decision on the issues. If there are no issues, the judge will move on with the hearing.

The US Attorney is representing the Government and is the prosecutor in the federal case. It’s possible that by now the US Attorney has submitted a Sentencing Memorandum. A Sentencing Memorandum is a report to the Judge about the matters the prosecutor feels are important in the sentencing hearing. For example, if the US Attorney wants you to get more prison time, he/she will explain that in their argument. The Sentencing Memorandum is not mandatory, but is helpful in outlining prior case law to support the arguments. Your attorney may also submit a Sentencing Memorandum.

After the US Attorney argues the Government’s positions on sentencing you, your attorney will be able to respond and speak on your behalf. Your attorney will talk about your strengths, support system, job and work opportunities, etc. During this presentation, your attorney may ask you, your friends, your family, your employer, your treating psychologist or physician, or anyone else to speak to the Judge on your behalf. Anyone speaking on your behalf should be respectful to the Court and follow all the rules suggested above in the chart. Anyone speaking on your behalf will have to swear on the Bible to tell the truth.

Your attorney can also submit letters to the Court; however, physical presence is preferred over letters. The letters should say more than “John Doe is a good person.” The Judge is not looking for a stack of letters about what a great gal or dude you are. The Judge wants to know what have you learned from this experience? How and how well does this person know you? How has this crime affected you and your family? What hardships have you overcome? What physical ailments do you have that would be important because they would need attention after you are in prison?

What types of penalties could the Judge order?

After the Judge has heard all of the arguments, heard from you, heard from anyone your lawyer wanted to speak on your behalf, and reviewed all relevant documents and sentencing guidelines, the Judge will render the sentence.

The types of sentences could be one or a combination of the following:

  • Jail time
  • Fines
  • Probation
  • Community service
  • Drug/alcohol rehab programs
  • Drug Court
  • Any other sentence the Court sees fit

Charleston Federal Courthouse Cases

If you have a case in the Charleston Federal Courthouse, your hearing will be at this location. You should be fully aware of the standard rules of entering a federal courthouse.

There is, understandably and thankfully, very tight security in a federal courthouse. There will be court officials such as Court Security and US Marshals that make sure the courthouse and federal employees within the courthouse are safe. You should be very respectful of their policies. Be courteous to all court staff.

Be prepared not to bring any electronic devices whatsoever into the federal courthouse. This includes cell phones. If you have something on your cell phone that you believe the Judge should see at a sentencing hearing, you should take this up with your attorney prior to the hearing.

You should not bring anything that can be construed as a weapon. Fingernail files, pocket knives, nail clippers, and the like are not allowed. You will be asked to leave the courthouse and return the items to your vehicle. In Charleston, the parking is very limited so this walk back to your vehicle could take a long time. You may miss part of the hearing.

Never be late to a sentencing hearing! Plan to be sitting in the courthouse at least 30 minutes before your scheduled sentencing hearing. This does not include the time you will need to find the courthouse, park, pay for parking at a meter or parking garage, go through security and ride the elevator to the courtroom. Keep in mind the courtroom may change, depending on the circumstances.

Be flexible and follow any instructions from court security or the US Marshals.

Federal Sentencing Hearing Tips

  • Be honest with your attorney – the better picture your attorney has of your life the better.
  • Don’t be afraid to think outside the box – provide your attorney with photos of you as a child, before this crime occurred, your graduation photos, important lifetime events and milestones. Give the Judge a visual of the person you were before this crime.
  • If you have good character witnesses, use them! The Judge does not know you personally. Help your attorney show the Judge you are not just another case number and person shuffling through the criminal justice system (copies of awards, certificates, diplomas, work awards and promotions, community involvement, rehab milestones and efforts).
  • Show sincere remorse. Consider writing an outline or letter to read at your sentencing hearing. You will be nervous and that is normal. Some people are so nervous they can’t think straight. Bring something to help guide you along this stressful process. You can’t afford not to.
  • It’s best to give your attorney all the info you can think of and your attorney can decide what to present. The more info you provide, the more your attorney can present to the Court.

Facing a federal charge?

The more you and your attorney are prepared before a sentencing hearing, the better you will feel easing into it.

While no one can predict the exact sentence, you will be relieved to go over the possible outcomes with your attorney prior to the sentencing hearing.

Don’t get railroaded and face this important sentencing hearing alone. Get an attorney that can help you so you can know what to expect.

You can contact me today to discuss your case. Call 843-607-9800 now to speak to me.

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