Federal Drug Trafficking
What Is Drug Trafficking?
When a person sells large quantities of drugs, transports drugs, or imports illegal drugs, he or she could be charged with drug trafficking. Drug trafficking may also be called drug distribution but is not the same offense as drug possession. Drug trafficking not only applies to the illegal distribution of illegal drugs, but also to the illegal distribution of prescription drugs, including sleeping pills and painkillers like hydrocodone.
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Sentences for drug trafficking generally range from 3-5 years in prison, to life in prison, depending on the quantity and type of drug involved, as well as other extenuating factors. Drug trafficking can be charged on the state level, or under federal law; when trafficking a controlled substance crosses state lines, federal law will apply. While the goal of drug trafficking laws was originally to deter major drug cartels, it is usually low-level dealers that end up being prosecuted for drug trafficking.
How Serious are Federal Drug Trafficking Charges?
It is fairly common for a person arrested on drug trafficking charges to have an initial bond set at $250,000 to $750,000—an amount that most people are unable to provide. If a firearm is involved in drug trafficking—even if the firearm is just found in the individual’s vehicle—the charges increase in seriousness, and bond will be unlikely. As you can see, federal drug trafficking charges are extremely serious, requiring the services of a highly experienced criminal defense attorney who has worked with federal criminal cases.
What About Marijuana?
Since some states have legalized marijuana, the drug trafficking laws have become a little fuzzy. Marijuana is still illegal as far as the federal government is concerned, therefore, federal laws have not changed regarding the trafficking of marijuana—even in states that have legalized it. It is also important to remember that even in states where marijuana is legal, it is still illegal to traffic more than the allowable levels. As an example, in the state of Colorado (which has legalized marijuana) it remains a felony to transport even four ounces of the drug.
What Must Be Proven for a Federal Drug Trafficking Conviction?
Drug trafficking is similar to drug possession, in that it must be shown that the person charged with the crime knowingly possessed the illegal, controlled substance. This means that if another person placed drugs in the trunk of your car, and you honestly had no idea the drugs were there until you were stopped by law enforcement and your car searched, then you did not knowingly transport a controlled substance. The prosecutor must show you were involved in the sale, transport, or importation of controlled substances, or that you intended to deliver or sell the drug. The intent to sell or deliver the drug elevates the offense to a felony.
Possession and trafficking can look much the same, so there are additional elements that must be present to prove the criminal offense of drug trafficking. What makes the difference between a relatively large quantity of drugs for personal use, and trafficking? This difference will usually rest on the presence of such things as plastic baggies, a scale, business cards, large amounts of cash, or even business records of the transactions. In a federal drug trafficking case, the government may also rely on witness testimony from those you sold or bought drugs from or even individuals who were aware of your trafficking operation.
Penalties for a Federal Drug Trafficking Conviction
First, the penalties for a federal drug trafficking conviction will depend on the Schedule of the drug. A Schedule I drug has a high potential for abuse, no currently accepted medical use, and a lack of accepted safety for use of the drug. Schedule I drugs include codeine, heroin, morphine, marijuana, peyote, and ecstasy. Schedule II drugs have a high potential for abuse, no currently accepted medical use, and can lead to severe psychological or physical dependence.
Schedule II drugs include methadone, Fentanyl, and oxycodone. A Schedule III drug has a potential for abuse that is less than Schedule I and II drugs, have a currently accepted medical use, and have a moderate to low physical dependence risk and a high psychological dependence risk. Schedule III drugs include codeine and hydrocodone with aspirin or Tylenol, anabolic steroids, and specific barbiturates.
Schedule IV drugs have a low potential for abuse, a currently accepted medical use, and a limited risk for physical or psychological dependence. Examples of Schedule IV drugs include Klonopin, Valium, Ativan, Restoril, Halcion, and Soma. A Schedule V drug has a low potential for abuse, a currently accepted medical use, and a limited risk for physical or psychological dependence. Schedule V drugs include cough formulas with less than 200 milligrams of codeine, Motofen, Parepectolin, Lyrica, and Lomotil.
Next, the penalties will depend on the amount of the drug found in your possession. When these and other factors are taken into consideration, a conviction for a first offense drug trafficking charge could result in anywhere from 3-5 years in prison, all the way up to life in prison—unless death or a serious injury occurred during the trafficking.
The exception is trafficking in a Schedule V substance; a first offense is up to one year in prison (depending on the amount of the drug and prior criminal history it can be more) and fines up to $100,000. The fines can go into the millions, depending on the drug, the amount of the drug, any prior history of drug trafficking, whether a weapon was used, and whether anyone was injured or killed. A second offense for trafficking could bring not less than ten years in prison, up to life, unless death or serious injury occurred, then up to life in prison.
Another enhancement to sentencing for federal drug trafficking is selling drugs in a school zone. In addition to the criminal penalties, you could face a federal drug trafficking conviction, asset forfeiture (bank accounts, vehicles, real estate) and immigration consequences if you are in the country illegally (including deportation after the prison sentence is served in full).
What to Do—and What Not to Do—If You are Arrested on Federal Drug Trafficking Charges
If you are arrested on federal drug trafficking charges, it is imperative that you not speak to anyone regarding your charges until you have had a chance to hire an experienced criminal defense lawyer. These are very serious charges that could cost you your freedom for a very long time and making a single misstep could truly seal your fate. Do not talk to anyone from jail, other than to ask a friend or family member to call an attorney for you. Jail calls are routinely recorded—you do not want a recorded conversation with you admitting your involvement to derail your case later on.
Do not talk to your cellmate or any fellow inmates. It is normal for those in jail to “bond,” and discuss their charges and cases. This is always a bad idea, as many times an inmate or cellmate may receive a favorable deal on their own case in return for them telling law enforcement what you said. Once you have a knowledgeable criminal defense lawyer on board, he or she can request a bond reduction, obtaining your release from jail until your trial. If you are released on bond, do not speak to anyone about your charges or your case, and never, ever, post anything on social media about your case. Follow your attorney’s instructions carefully, and to the letter. This will allow your attorney to do his job and potentially obtain a dismissal of your case or an acquittal at trial.
Downward adjustments are sometimes possible in a federal trafficking case should you choose to significantly assist federal prosecutors. This means you provide information that will help law enforcement prosecute other criminals. If you provide this type of assistance, then the federal prosecutor can ask the sentencing court for a downward adjustment based on your cooperation and assistance. This is definitely something you should discuss with your attorney, as there can also be potential downsides to this type of cooperation.
Potential Defenses to Federal Drug Trafficking Charges
While the defense for your specific charges will be carefully crafted by your criminal defense attorney depending on the circumstances surrounding your charges, there are certain defenses that are commonly used, including:
- Fabricated evidence or flaw in testimony on the part of law enforcement
- Entrapment by federal agents
- Actual innocence
- Illegal search and seizure
- Failure to Mirandize you following your arrest
Your criminal defense attorney will conduct a thorough investigation into your charges to determine whether any of the above defenses are applicable for your case. A plea bargain may be offered, and you will have to determine whether accepting the plea bargain is in your best interests—whether you are likely to lose at trial and be sentenced to more severe penalties than those you would receive in a plea bargain.
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You want a team of experienced, passionate federal crimes lawyer that are ready to fight for you. Contact the Ciccarelli legal team today at (610) 692-8700. We serve federal criminal clients throughout Pennsylvania and are convenient to our clients with office locations in Philadelphia, West Chester, Lancaster, Springfield, Malvern, Plymouth Meeting, Lancaster, and Radnor and also available for phone and video meetings. You can have our lawyers provide an honest and thorough evaluation of your case when you call (610) 692-8700 or complete an online contact form to schedule a free, confidential consultation.