What To Know About Federal Drug Trafficking Charges
Whether you are a first-time offender or you are facing charges after a previous arrest and conviction, facing federal drug trafficking charges can be terrifying. You may already know that you may be facing a mandatory minimum sentence of decades in prison, not to mention other consequences if you are convicted. At Roberts Law Group, we have years of experience representing defendants who are facing federal criminal charges, including federal drug trafficking charges. We know how important it is to do everything possible to beat the charges and to avoid a federal criminal conviction. Our federal criminal defense attorneys in North Carolina can speak with you today about building a defense to the charges you are facing. In the meantime, the following are 15 things you should know about federal drug trafficking charges.
1. Federal Drug Trafficking is Charged as a Distribution Offense
Federal drug trafficking charges are typically brought under 21 U.S.C. § 841, which makes it unlawful “to manufacture, distribute, or dispense, or possess with intent to manufacture, distribute, or dispense, a controlled substance” or “to create, distribute, or dispense, or possess with intent to distribute or dispense, a counterfeit substance.” Although the federal statute does not expressly identify the act of “trafficking,” this offense falls under the prohibited act of manufacturing or creating, distributing, or dispensing a controlled substance as described above and is commonly referred to as “drug trafficking.”
2. The Definition of Drug Trafficking Can Vary Between State and Federal Laws
Generally speaking, drug trafficking definitions can vary between state and federal laws. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime defines drug trafficking as an “illicit trade involving the cultivation, manufacture, distribution, and sale of substances which are subject to drug prohibition laws.” This general definition is in line with the federal drug offenses defined above under U.S. federal law.
It is important to know that federal law can be defined differently from state laws and that state laws can also vary between and among one another. North Carolina law defines trafficking based on the amount of controlled substance in a person’s possession. To be clear, trafficking offenses can be charged when a person is in possession of a large enough quantity of a controlled substance.
3. Federal Drug Trafficking Charges Require the Prosecutor to Prove Specific Elements of the Offense
What specific elements does a prosecutor need to prove in order to convict a person of drug trafficking? Under federal law, a prosecutor must prove the following elements in order to obtain a conviction for a federal drug trafficking charges; he or she must prove that you:
- Intentionally and knowingly;
- Manufactured or distributed;
- A controlled substance or counterfeit drug.
Without proving you had intent to manufacture or distribute a controlled substance or a counterfeit drug, you cannot be convicted of federal drug trafficking charges. However, it is not a defense to say that you did not intend to manufacture or distribute a controlled substance because you only intended to manufacture or distribute a prescription drug that is otherwise legal with a prescription. To be clear, controlled substances under federal law include drugs that are lawful to possess in certain quantities with a valid prescription but are unlawful to possess in other contexts.
4. Marijuana Trafficking Can Result in Federal Drug Trafficking Charges Despite Various State Decriminalization and Legalization
You might be wondering if you can still face federal drug trafficking charges related to marijuana possession or distribution since marijuana or cannabis has been decriminalized or legalized in many U.S. states. In fact, even North Carolina legislators are considering proposed legislation (HB 617) to legalize cannabis in the state. However, it is essential to know that marijuana has not been legalized or decriminalized at the federal level. Thus, marijuana trafficking charges remain possible. Further, even though North Carolina lawmakers are considering the possibility of cannabis legalization, marijuana trafficking remains a felony offense in the state.
5. Controlled Substances Act Governs Federal Drug Trafficking Charges and Penalties
The federal Controlled Substances Act (CSA) governs federal drug trafficking charges and identifies the ‘schedules’ of prohibited controlled substances. Under the CSA, illegal controlled substances are classified as either Schedule I, Schedule II, Schedule III, Schedule IV, or Schedule V drugs. The following are examples of drugs that are listed under each schedule, the possession or distribution of which can result in federal drug trafficking charges:
- Schedule I: heroin, methaqualone, and marijuana;
- Schedule II: cocaine, methadone, methamphetamine, and morphine;
- Schedule III: codeine and hydrocodone;
- Schedule IV: valium and xanax; and
- Schedule V: cough medicine containing codeine.
6. Penalties for Federal Drug Trafficking are Severe
The penalties for a federal drug trafficking conviction are severe. While the penalties will vary depending upon whether you are a first-time offender, the schedule of the controlled substance, and the amount of the controlled substances possessed or distributed, the least severe penalty for drug trafficking comes with a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in prison and up to 40 years in prison. Many drug trafficking convictions come with a mandatory minimum prison sentence of 10 years or 20 years in addition to fines of $10 million, $20 million, and even more under certain circumstances.
7. Federal Drug Trafficking Conviction Can Result in a Loss of Federal Benefits
If you are convicted of drug trafficking under federal law, you should know that federal law (21 U.S. Code § 862) allows the federal government to take away benefits you are currently receiving or that you could seek in the future. The statute says that “any individual who is convicted of any federal or state offense consisting of the distribution of controlled substances shall . . . at the discretion of the court, upon the first conviction of such an offense be ineligible for any or all federal benefits for up to 5 years after such conviction.” A second conviction can make you ineligible for federal benefits for up to 10 years after the conviction, and a third or subsequent conviction can result in permanent ineligibility for all federal benefits.
Examples of those federal benefits include but are not limited to the following:
- Federal student loans;
- Educational grants and other types of grant-based funding;
- Government contracts; and
- Government licenses.
8. You Could Also Face Drug Trafficking Charges Under North Carolina Criminal Law
If you are accused of drug trafficking under federal law, you could also face drug trafficking charges under state law.
North Carolina law explicitly identifies criminal offenses that can be charged as “trafficking” under state law, and those trafficking charges are based on the quantity of the controlled substance involved in the offense. For example, under N.C. Gen. Stat. § 90-95, “any person who sells, manufactures, delivers, transports, or possesses in excess of 50 dosage units of a synthetic cannabinoid or mixture containing such substance, shall be guilty of a felony, which felony shall be known as ‘trafficking in synthetic cannabinoids.’” Similarly, a person can be charged with “trafficking in methaqualone” if that person sells, manufactures, delivers, transports, or possesses the substance in excess of a particular amount. There are similar offenses for the possession of large quantities of other controlled substances.
9. Nearly 30% of Cases Reported to the Federal Sentencing Commission are Drug Trafficking Cases
The United States Sentencing Commission (USSC) provides yearly data on federal criminal sentences and reported that nearly 30% of all reported cases sentenced at the federal level involved drug trafficking. What this means is that federal prosecutors have significant experience prosecuting and winning federal drug trafficking charges, which shows the importance of having a criminal defense attorney with experience defending against such charges.
10. Seven Types of Drugs Account for Nearly All Federal Drug Trafficking Charges
While there are many different types of drugs or controlled substances that can result in federal drug trafficking charges, the USSC reports that more than 95% of all federal drug trafficking charges involve one of the following seven types of substances:
- Powder cocaine;
- Crack cocaine;
- Oxycodone; and
11. Certain Aggravating Factors May Result in an Increased Sentence if You are Convicted
While you can certainly be subject to a mandatory minimum sentence, you should know that certain aggravating factors can resulted in an increased sentence if you are convicted, such as:
- Possession of a weapon at the time of the offense; or
- Having a leadership role in the offense.
12. Various Defenses May be Available in Your Case
An attorney may be able to present various defense strategies to fight the federal drug trafficking charges you are facing. It is essential to work with an experienced federal criminal defense attorney to determine the best defense strategy for you based on the specific facts of your case. The following are potential defense strategies that may apply to those facing federal drug trafficking charges:
- Proof from a laboratory that the alleged controlled substance or counterfeit substance is not actually an illegal drug;
- Showing that the drugs were planted in your car, in your home, or in another area where you had control of the property;
- Possible unlawful search and seizure under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which occurs when law enforcement stops and searches an individual without reasonable suspicion or probable cause;
- Entrapment, which occurs when the government, through law enforcement, induces an individual to commit a criminal offense when they lacked any predisposition to commit the act prior to engaging with law enforcement; and/or
- One or more witnesses gave false testimony.
13. Statute of Limitations Apply to Federal Drug Trafficking Charges
As we noted above, the fact that the statute of limitations has run out may be an option for defending against federal drug trafficking charges. Generally speaking, non-capital offenses, including drug trafficking charges, have a five-year statute of limitations under federal law (18 U.S. Code § 3282). The statute of limitations is the amount of time the federal government has to bring charges against you for an alleged offense. The “clock” on the statute of limitations for a federal drug trafficking charge starts to tick on the date the offense was allegedly committed. From that point onward, with few exceptions, the federal government will need to prosecute, try, or punish a person for drug trafficking within that five-year window. Once the clock on the statute of limitations runs out, or stops ticking, you cannot be prosecuted for that drug trafficking offense.
14. Majority of Federal Drug Trafficking Convictions Carry a Mandatory Minimum Sentence
As noted above, a majority of federal drug trafficking convictions carry lengthy mandatory minimum prison sentences. Accordingly, you need to do everything you can to fight the charges you are facing.
15. Working With a Federal Drug Trafficking Defense Lawyer Gives You the Best Chance of Beating the Charges or Having Your Sentence Reduced
You should remember that working with a federal drug trafficking defense attorney will give you the best chance of beating the charges you are facing. Even if it looks like you will not be able to beat the charges, you will need an attorney who has experience negotiating a reduction of the charges or working to reduce a potentially decades long sentence.
Contact Our North Carolina Federal Drug Trafficking Defense Attorneys Today
If you are facing federal drug trafficking charges, it is critical to begin working with an experienced North Carolina drug trafficking defense attorney as soon as you can. The quicker you seek advice from our federal drug trafficking defense lawyers in North Carolina, the sooner we will be able to begin developing a strong defense strategy for your case and gathering evidence to help you beat the charges you are facing. Even if we ultimately cannot get the charges dismissed, our attorneys are skilled in negotiating significant sentence reductions.
Do not hesitate to get in touch with us to learn more about how we can assist you with a federal drug trafficking defense. Contact the Roberts Law Group, PLLC today for more information about federal drug trafficking defense options.