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How Do Federal Defense Attorneys Handle Interstate Drug Trafficking Cases?

By Spodek Law Group | October 19, 2023
(Last Updated On: October 20, 2023)

Last Updated on: 20th October 2023, 11:36 am


How Do Federal Defense Attorneys Handle Interstate Drug Trafficking Cases?

Federal drug trafficking cases involving the transportation of illegal drugs across state lines are complex and require experienced criminal defense attorneys to mount an effective defense. This article provides an overview of how federal defense lawyers approach these challenging cases.

Key Federal Drug Trafficking Laws

The main federal laws used to prosecute drug trafficking cases include[1][3]:

  • 21 U.S.C. § 841 – prohibits manufacturing, distributing, dispensing, or possessing controlled substances with intent to distribute. This covers drug trafficking offenses for all major illegal drugs including cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, fentanyl and marijuana.
  • 21 U.S.C. § 846 – prohibits attempting or conspiring to commit federal drug crimes under § 841. This allows prosecutors to charge defendants who conspire but do not actually handle drugs.
  • 21 U.S.C. § 952 – prohibits importing controlled substances into the United States. Often used in international drug smuggling cases.
  • 21 U.S.C. § 959 – prohibits manufacturing or distributing drugs outside the U.S. with intent to import them. Used to prosecute international traffickers.
  • 21 U.S.C. § 963 – prohibits attempting or conspiring to commit controlled substance importation crimes under § 952 and § 959.
  • 18 U.S.C. § 1956 – prohibits money laundering derived from drug trafficking activities.

Penalties for Federal Drug Trafficking

Penalties for federal drug trafficking crimes depend on the type and quantity of drugs involved. Key factors include[1][4]:

  • Drug type – penalties are most severe for Schedule I and II drugs like heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and fentanyl. Marijuana is a Schedule I drug but penalties have been reduced in recent years.
  • Drug quantity – larger quantities trigger lengthier mandatory minimums and higher statutory maximums. For example, 5 kilos of cocaine carries a 10-year minimum while 50 kilos carries a 20-year minimum.
  • Prior convictions – prior felony drug convictions can double mandatory minimums. Someone with a prior conviction faces a 20-year minimum for 5 kilos compared to 10 years for first time offenders.
  • Aggravating factors – factors like possession of a firearm, use of violence, or causing death or injury can add years to sentences.
  • Sentencing guidelines – the complex federal guidelines often increase sentences above mandatory minimums based on criminal history and other factors.

Federal drug trafficking sentences are severe, with first-time offenders facing 10 years or longer in many cases. Life sentences can result for large quantities or leaders of drug organizations. Hiring experienced counsel is critical to mitigate penalties.

Key Defense Strategies in Federal Drug Cases

Skilled federal defense attorneys have many tools at their disposal to build an aggressive defense in drug trafficking cases[5][6]:

  • File suppression motions – file motions to suppress evidence from unconstitutional searches, wiretaps, or coerced statements.
  • Challenge evidence – scrutinize physical evidence and police testimony for credibility issues or procedural errors. Retest drug samples independently.
  • Raise entrapment – prove the defendant was improperly induced by police to commit the crime.
  • Attack credibility of informants – challenge the motives and truthfulness of confidential informants used to build the case.
  • Minimize defendant’s role – provide evidence showing the defendant played a minor role compared to co-defendants.
  • Negotiate plea bargains – negotiate with prosecutors for dismissal of charges or reduced sentences.
  • Go to trial – take the case to trial and argue the defendant’s innocence before a jury when appropriate.

Experienced counsel will aggressively pursue all legal and factual defenses to get charges dismissed pre-trial, win at trial, or negotiate reduced sentencing.

Federal Sentencing Process and Guidelines

  • A pre-sentence report prepared by federal probation officers recommending a guideline sentence.
  • Objections submitted by defense counsel challenging facts in the report.
  • Sentencing memorandums arguing for downward departures from the guidelines.
  • Sentencing hearings where judges determine the final sentence based on guidelines and statutory factors.

While the guidelines are advisory, judges typically stay within the recommended range. However, skilled advocacy can persuade judges to issue below-guideline sentences in appropriate cases.

Using Mandatory Minimum Exceptions

For many years, mandatory minimums restricted judges from issuing sentences below the statutory minimums. However, recent reforms have created limited exceptions[4]:

  • 18 U.S.C. § 3553(e) – allows sentences below mandatory minimums for defendants who provide “substantial assistance” to prosecutors.
  • 18 U.S.C. § 3553(f) – the “safety valve” exception allows sentences below mandatory minimums if defendants meet 5 criteria, including having a minor role.

Experienced counsel will aggressively pursue these exceptions to win reduced sentences for clients facing lengthy mandatory minimum terms.


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