A huge percentage of the criminal cases in federal court involve charges relating to the trafficking of drugs, narcotics, and controlled substances. Convictions for these crimes carry serious penalties and sometimes involve mandatory minimum prison sentences. Usually, a person accused in federal court of possessing or trafficking controlled substances is charged with violating 21 USC 841, which makes it a crime to manufacture, distribute, or dispense, or possess with intent to manufacture, distribute, or dispense, a controlled substance. Section 841(b) sets forth the potential penalties for this offense, and it depends primarily upon the quantity of controlled substance possessed/distributed in the aggregate. What matters for sentencing purposes is not the number of transactions or the frequency of the activity, but the total volume of drugs possessed or distributed over time. If the quantities involved surpass a certain threshold (depending on the drug), as set forth in Section 841(b), then there can be serious mandatory minimum prison sentences for the offenders. Those mandatory minimum sentences notwithstanding, the potential penalties for these offenses are governed by the complex system set forth in the federal sentencing guidelines. For more on the federal sentencing guidelines, click here.
Federal cases involving narcotics charges typically are the result of long-term investigations by the FBI, the DEA, Homeland Security, or a joint task force involving local police like the NYPD. As such, there are oftentimes wiretaps, surveillance tapes, confidential informants, and search warrants. An effective defense requires an attorney who can review the evidence and the law enforcement processes to determine whether any constitutional rights were violated.
Many unfortunate individuals never actually possessed or distributed narcotics but nonetheless find themselves charged in federal court on account of the conspiracy laws encapsulated in 21 USC 846. That statute explains: “Any person who attempts or conspires to commit any offense defined in this subchapter shall be subject to the same penalties as those prescribed for the offense, the commission of which was the object of the attempt or conspiracy.” Basically, this means that a person who plays any knowing role whatsoever in another person’s illegal business is criminally liable for the entirety of that conduct. For example, a person who introduces two people for the purpose of a drug transaction can be expected to be charged as an equal to whatever drug transaction ultimately occurred. A person who acts as a lookout during a drug transaction could be treated as equally culpable to the seller of the narcotics. A person who simply rents an apartment to someone whom he knows is dealing drugs from the apartment could be guilty of “conspiring” to assist the dealer. These are just a few examples of people who could be charged in ways that seem unfair in light of their relatively modest role in the crime. We have however defended many girlfriends of drug dealers and casual acquaintances of true criminals who have found themselves knee-deep in serious federal cases after having had only fleeting or tangential involvement in the cases. But this is the reality of federal conspiracy law.