an appeal from a judgment rendered by the Court of Appeals of
Virginia. Court of Appeals No. 0347-17-3
Ronnie Lee Stone pled guilty to five counts of distribution
of cocaine, second or subsequent offense, one count of
possession of a firearm while possessing cocaine with intent
to distribute, and one count of possession of a firearm by a
convicted felon. As to the five cocaine distribution
offenses, the circuit court sentenced Stone to an active
sentence equal to the mandatory minimum sentence of three
years of imprisonment on each offense under Code §
18.2-248(C). On appeal, Stone argues the Court of
Appeals erred in upholding the circuit court's ruling
that he did not qualify under the so-called "safety
valve" provision of Code §
18.2-248(C) for exemption from the three-year
mandatory minimum sentences on four of the cocaine
distribution offenses. Stone v. Commonwealth, Record No.
0347-17-3, 2018 WL 1473619 (Va. Ct. App. March 27, 2018)
(unpublished). We disagree, and affirm.
§ 18.2-248(C) provides that a person guilty of
second-offense cocaine distribution may "be sentenced to
imprisonment for life or for any period not less than five
years, three years of which shall be a mandatory minimum term
of imprisonment to be served consecutively with any other
sentence." Subsection (C) further provides, however,
that this mandatory minimum sentence "shall not be
applicable if the court finds" that all of the factual
predicates listed in subdivisions (4)(a) through (4)(e) of
this subsection have been established. Id. Here,
only the second factual predicate prescribed in subdivision
(4)(b) of subsection (C) is at issue, which states:
"[t]he person did not . . . possess a firearm . . . in
connection with the offense . . . ." Id.
in Hall v. Commonwealth, 296 Va. 577 (2018), we
addressed one of the other factual predicates under the
safety valve provision of Code § 18.2-248(C) to
determine its applicability in that case. In doing so, we
held that "the burden of production and persuasion"
in establishing the factual predicates that provide potential
relief from the mandatory minimum sentence under Code §
18.2-248(C) "falls on the defendant seeking to invoke
[this] safety-valve provision." 296 Va. at 586. This is
consistent with decisions of federal courts applying similar
sentencing safety valve provisions in which they have
likewise held that it was the defendant's burden to prove
the factual predicates for relief. See United States v.
Bolton, 858 F.3d 905, 913 (4th Cir. 2017) (applying
United States Sentencing Guidelines ("U.S.S.G.")
§ 5C1.2(a)); United States v.
Altamirano-Quintero, 511 F.3d 1087, 1098 (10th Cir.
2007) (applying 18 U.S.C. § 3553(f)); United States
v. Anderson, 452 F.3d 87, 90-91 (1st Cir. 2006)
(applying U.S.S.G. § 5C1.2(a)); United States v.
Bolka, 355 F.3d 909, 912 (6th Cir. 2004) (same). The
burden placed upon the defendant in each of these cases was a
preponderance of the evidence standard of proof, which we
hereby adopt as the standard for Code §
18.2-248(C)'s safety valve provision. See also
Ballagh v. Fauber Enterprises, Inc., 290 Va. 120, 124
(2015) (adopting, for claims alleging violations of the
Virginia Consumer Protection Act, Code §§ 59.1-196
to -207, a preponderance of the evidence standard as the
"default standard of proof" where the General
Assembly has not expressly provided for a higher standard).
conclude that Stone failed to carry his burden under Code
§ 18.2-248(C) to prove by a preponderance of the
evidence that he did not possess a firearm in connection with
the four cocaine distribution offenses on which he challenges
the circuit court's imposition of the three-year
mandatory minimum sentences.
properly review the trial court's application of the law
to the facts, '[w]e give deference to the trial
court's factual findings and view the facts in the light
most favorable to . . . the prevailing part[y] below."
Kim v. Commonwealth, 293 Va. 304, 311 (2017)
(quoting Caplan v. Bogard, 264 Va. 219, 225 (2002)).
Furthermore, "[t]he judgment of the trial court is
presumed correct and will not be disturbed unless it is
'plainly wrong or without evidence to support
it.'" Gerald v. Commonwealth, 295 Va. 469,
479 (2018) (quoting Pijor v. Commonwealth, 294 Va.
502, 512 (2017) (quoting Code § 8.01-680)); see
Commonwealth v. Giddens, 295 Va. 607, 613 (2018) (same).
written detailed joint stipulations of fact admitted during
the hearing on Stone's guilty pleas established the
following. Four times during a one-month period a
confidential informant went to Stone's residence and
purchased cocaine from him. Shortly after the controlled
buys, the police executed a search warrant at Stone's
residence. During the search, the police found, among other
contraband, cocaine on Stone's person and crack cocaine
in his bedroom, totaling approximately one ounce. The police
also discovered a loaded AK-47 assault rifle next to his bed
and a loaded AK-47 magazine in a nightstand adjacent to the
firearm. This search accounted for one of Stone's cocaine
distribution convictions on his guilty pleas, while the
confidential informant's controlled buys accounted for
Stone's other four cocaine distribution convictions-for
which the three-year mandatory minimum sentences are at issue
addition to the two joint stipulations, at Stone's
sentencing hearing, the Commonwealth proffered a statement
from Stone's wife indicating that about two months prior
to the execution of the search warrant, Stone "obtained
the firearm from a relative and had it in the house for
protection" because they had been "robbed
previously." Absent any objection to this proffer from
Stone, the circuit court admitted this proffer "as a
stipulation." Furthermore, Stone offered no evidence on
his own behalf in relation to his possession of the firearm,
or on any other matter concerning his offenses, at his
stipulated evidence thus established that Stone had been in
actual or constructive possession of a firearm, i.e., an
AK-47 assault rifle, at his residence during the time period
when the four controlled drug buys between Stone and the
confidential informant took place at that location. See
Stone, 2018 WL 1473619, at *3-*4 (analyzing issue of
constructive possession). Absent any other evidence, Stone,
upon his request for application of Code §
18.2-248(C)'s safety valve exemption from the mandatory
minimum sentences, plainly failed to carry his burden of
establishing that he did not possess the firearm in
connection with these four cocaine distribution offenses.
Indeed, as the circuit court indicated in finding that Stone
did not meet his burden on this issue, it was reasonable to
draw the affirmative inference from the stipulated evidence
that Stone in fact possessed the firearm for the protection
of his illegal drug operation being conducted out of his
residence. See Thomas v. Commonwealth, 44 Va.App.
741, 755 (2005) (acknowledging "the commonsense
'relationship between the distribution of controlled
substances . . . and the possession and use of dangerous
weapons'" (quoting Logan v. Commonwealth,
19 Va.App. 437, 445 (1994) (en banc)); see also United
States v. White, 875 F.2d 427, 433 (4th Cir. 1989)
(recognizing that firearms are "tools of the trade"
in drug trafficking).
as the Court of Appeals held, the circuit court did not err
by imposing the three-year mandatory minimum sentences under
Code § 18.2-248(C) on Stone's second-offense cocaine
distribution offenses at issue, after rejecting Stone's
request for application of the safety valve provision as to
his convictions on these offenses. Accordingly, we affirm the
judgment of the Court of Appeals.
order shall be published in the Virginia Reports and
certified to the Court of Appeals of Virginia and the Circuit
Court of Pittsylvania County.
 Stone received a total sentence of 48
years of imprisonment with 28 years suspended. On each of the
five cocaine distribution offenses, Stone was sentenced to
eight years with a suspension of five years, leaving the