Prison likely for Ravenel if guilty

COLUMBIA -- If convicted on a federal drug charge, former State Treasurer Thomas Ravenel could receive as little as six months' house arrest and probation, according to an analysis of federal sentencing guidelines by The State.

The most prison time Ravenel likely would face would be about four years.

The guidelines are not mandatory but are followed in about 70 percent of federal criminal cases in South Carolina.

Six months of house arrest or even four years in prison is far less than the maximum sentence of 20 years and a $1 million fine that Ravenel could face if convicted of conspiracy to possess and distribute less than 500 grams, or about a pound, of cocaine.

It's also possible a judge could sentence Ravenel to probation only. That could happen if he pleads guilty and provides information to authorities that leads to the arrest of others and the amount of cocaine involved was less than 25 grams, or less than an ounce, say lawyers familiar with the federal system.

"If everybody plays their cards right, if everybody cooperates, and if everybody gives truthful disclosure of their drug activity, there is a way they could end up with probation," said Bill Nettles, a longtime Columbia criminal defense attorney.

Ravenel, 44, a multimillionaire developer from Charleston, is accused of possessing an unspecified amount of cocaine and giving it to others, though not selling it.

His co-defendant, Michael Levon Miller, 25, of Mount Pleasant, faces the same federal charge, though authorities said he sold an unspecified amount of cocaine to Ravenel. Miller also faces state charges of drug trafficking.

Ravenel and Miller have pleaded not guilty to the federal drug charges. Lawyers interviewed by The State last week said Ravenel's continuing treatment for an apparent drug problem and his resignation as treasurer are signals he doesn't plan to fight the charge against him.

In South Carolina last fiscal year, 97 percent of all federally indicted cases ended in guilty pleas, records show.

Ravenel, who is free on a $100,000 unsecured bond meaning he didn't have to put up any money, was to check in at a New Mexico drug treatment center late last week, his lawyers said.

Lawyers who practice regularly in federal courts, including two former U.S. attorneys for South Carolina, said Miller could wind up with a sentence similar to Ravenel's if he is convicted especially if he provided information to authorities in Ravenel's case.

Former U.S. Attorney Rene Josey of Florence said it's "conceivable" Ravenel, if convicted, could get probation only.

But it's more likely that, based on the sentencing guidelines, Ravenel would receive some prison time, or probation combined with house arrest, Josey said.

Bart Daniel, of Charleston, a former U.S. attorney for South Carolina who is representing Ravenel, and Miller's federal public defender, Langdon Long, both declined to comment Friday.

First Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin McDonald declined Friday to say whether either defendant is cooperating with authorities or to discuss other details of the case, such as the amount of drugs involved.

He also wouldn't say whether either Ravenel or Miller will face additional charges.

"We consider the investigation ongoing," McDonald said. "If it's appropriate to add charges, that is something that will be done."

Miller also faces state charges of trafficking about 14 grams of cocaine to an undercover police officer. He remains in the Charleston County jail, having failed to post a $50,000 bond. His state public defender, Rodney Davis, said after a hearing Thursday in North Charleston that he had been informed federal authorities plan to take over the state case, though that hasn't occurred.

That might affect Miller's sentence should he plead guilty to the federal charge, according to other lawyers contacted by The State.

The federal sentencing guidelines were adopted in 1987 to eliminate disparities in sentences nationwide. In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court said the guidelines are only advisory, though judges must have good reasons to go above or below them.

The guidelines generally are based on the type of crime and the offender's prior record. Offenders with long records who commit violent offenses face the stiffest sentences.

Other factors, including the defendant's acceptance of responsibility, degree of involvement and cooperation with authorities, are used to raise or lower sentences.

"The way you can get your sentence reduced in the federal system is to plead guilty and to give substantial assistance (to authorities)," said longtime Columbia criminal defense lawyer Jack Swerling.

Of 443 drug traffickers getting federal sentences last fiscal year in South Carolina, 117, or about 26 percent, received downward departure sentences based on motions made by prosecutors, court records show.

Using a point system, the U.S. Probation Office prepares a sentencing recommendation for the court. Prosecutors and defense lawyers can contest the recommendation, but the judge has the final say on whether to accept it.

In drug cases, the amount of drugs involved is key under the sentencing guidelines. Very low amounts can result in probation if the offender has no prior record; large amounts typically involve prison time.

In South Carolina last fiscal year, the average drug trafficking sentence was about 11 years, compared to seven years nationwide. Figures were not available for Ravenel's specific charge.

Columbia attorney Pete Strom, a former U.S. attorney for South Carolina, said in typical plea agreements, defendants have to submit to lie detector tests to help assure authorities they are telling the truth about the amount of drugs involved. That, in turn, makes it easier to determine sentences under the guidelines.

Chief U.S. District Judge Joe Anderson, who is presiding over Ravenel's and Miller's cases, has a reputation for fairness and staying within the guidelines, Strom said.

"Our judges stick to the guidelines," he said.