Foreign citizens and drug importation charges at JFK, Newark, and LaGuardia Airports (federal controlled substance crimes)
American demand for illegal drugs, combined with harsh federal and state laws prohibiting their sale and possession, has created a black market that can be extraordinarily lucrative for illegal drug traffickers. Enticed by the potential to make significant amounts of money very quickly, many foreign citizens make the mistake of attempting to import controlled substances into the United States through New York City’s international airports (JFK and Newark, and to a lesser extent, LaGuardia). Those individuals caught in the act of importing narcotics typically face federal criminal charges like 21 U.S.C. § 952 (importing controlled substances) or 21 U.S.C. § 841 (possessing controlled substances with intent to distribute). Indeed, one study concluded that approximately 75% of those individuals sentenced for federal drug convictions in 2014 were illegal immigrants or foreign citizens.
It should first be noted that individuals basically do not have any constitutional protections against searches or seizures at the U.S. border. This is a slight oversimplification, but plainly put, Customs officers at the airports are generally permitted to search any luggage for just about any reason, whether that person is a citizen or not. Customs officials can also search through electronic devices and cell phones without any articulable suspicion (which occasionally results in arrests for child pornography).
Individuals found to have illegal controlled substances in their luggage or on their persons at the airport tend to be charged with federal crimes, though small matters are sometimes referred to state law enforcement (where the penalties tend to be less severe). It is the transportation of the controlled substances across state lines or across the U.S. border that gives federal law enforcement jurisdiction to prosecute these cases.
Foreign citizens arrested for illegally importing controlled substances are typically brought before a federal magistrate judge for an initial appearance a day or two after their arrests. At that time, the judge determines the amount of bail to set. Bail in these cases tends to be very high, if it is set at all (the alternative to bail is a remand, in which the accused individuals are simply detained and not afforded the opportunity to post bail at all). Additionally, though, the immigration agencies usually serve immigration detainers, which are agency orders that cause any accused foreign citizen to be taken directly into immigration custody in the event that he or she actually pays her federal criminal bail. Put another way, most foreign citizens accused of federal drug importation crimes should not even bother trying to post bail, as the payment of bail would simply result in them being transferred into an immigration jail, where they would wait until the resolution of their criminal case anyway.
The penalties for individuals charged with federal drug importation crimes at the airport depend primarily upon the quantities of drugs that the accused individuals were attempting to import. This issue is too difficult to summarize here – you should contact an experienced criminal defense attorney to discuss the likely potential sentence under the federal Sentencing Guidelines.
Even those individuals with green cards or valid American visas can face deportation as a result of merely being arrested – let alone convicted – for alleged importation of narcotics at the American border. Thus, the stakes can be particularly high for those accused non-citizens with family members living in the United States.
Some non-citizens also find themselves getting in trouble for possessing drugs or controlled substances that they had no intention of trafficking. For example, we have represented several individuals that have been stopped while attempting to bring prescription drugs onto airplanes departing the United States. These individuals typically get charged in state court with misdemeanors in violation of Penal Law 220.03. Foreigners should understand that even if they have valid foreign prescriptions for their controlled substances, if they cannot present proof of those prescriptions to inspectors at the airport, they are likely to be arrested. In short, prescription drugs should never be carried “loose” in airline luggage or without proof of the underlying prescription. Non-citizens convicted of even misdemeanor state level drug charges can also face serious immigration consequences from these seemingly minor incidents.
If your loved one is a foreign citizen facing drug charges in the United States, you should strongly consider contacting the experienced criminal defense attorneys at Galluzzo & Arnone LLP. Their team of former prosecutors has successfully defended countless individuals charged with drug possession and trafficking, and has represented a citizen of almost every sizable nation on Earth. Indeed, a significant percentage of their clients are foreign citizens, as they maintain close working relationships with the New York area consulates of several foreign nations, including France, Saudi Arabia, Switzerland, Belgium, and Australia. Call them to schedule a consultation and get a fair assessment of your case.
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