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How Do Federal Defense Lawyers Handle Interstate Drug Trafficking Cases?

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

Last Updated on: 20th October 2023, 11:44 am

How Do Federal Defense Lawyers Handle Interstate Drug Trafficking Cases?

Federal drug trafficking cases involve the illegal manufacture, distribution, and sale of controlled substances across state or national borders. These complex cases carry harsh mandatory minimum sentences, so having an experienced federal criminal defense lawyer is critical. This article provides an overview of how lawyers defend federal drug trafficking charges.

Understanding Federal vs. State Drug Charges

Drug offenses can be prosecuted at both the state and federal level. Federal charges are typically brought when[1]:

  • Large quantities of drugs are involved
  • The trafficking activities cross state or national borders
  • The crimes occur on federal property like military bases or national parks
  • The defendant was part of a large criminal organization

Federal drug investigations also tend to be more extensive, well-funded, and carry much stiffer penalties compared to state charges[1].

For example, being caught with over 500g of cocaine can lead to federal trafficking charges with a 5-year mandatory minimum sentence[1]. The same amount in state court may only lead to simple possession charges with less jail time.

Common Federal Drug Trafficking Charges

There are a number of federal statutes used to prosecute drug trafficking crimes[2]:

  • 21 U.S.C. 841 – Manufacturing, distributing, or possessing with intent to distribute illegal drugs
  • 21 U.S.C. 846 – Drug trafficking conspiracies
  • 21 U.S.C. 952 – Drug importation
  • 21 U.S.C. 963 – International drug trafficking conspiracy
  • 18 U.S.C. 1952 – Use of communication facilities to commit drug crimes
  • 18 U.S.C. 1956 – Money laundering

The most commonly trafficked drugs in federal cases are[3]:

  • Marijuana
  • Cocaine
  • Heroin
  • Methamphetamine
  • Fentanyl

Penalties for Federal Drug Trafficking

Federal drug trafficking penalties are severe, with long mandatory minimum sentences based on the type and quantity of drugs[4]:

  • Even small amounts of drugs like fentanyl have a 4-year mandatory minimum.
  • Trafficking over 1kg of heroin carries a 10-year minimum sentence.
  • Trafficking over 450kg of cocaine has a 25-year mandatory minimum.
  • Prior felony drug convictions can double mandatory minimums.
  • Sentences can go up to life in prison for large quantities.

In addition to imprisonment, federal drug trafficking convictions also carry[4]:

  • Massive fines up to $10 million
  • Forfeiture of assets connected with the crimes
  • Supervised release after prison time
  • Lost access to federal benefits like financial aid

How Lawyers Defend Federal Drug Trafficking Cases

Experienced federal defense lawyers use a variety of strategies to fight drug trafficking charges[5]:

Attack the Evidence

  • File motions to suppress evidence obtained illegally without probable cause or a warrant. This can sometimes lead to a case dismissal.
  • Challenge the chain of custody and testing procedures used to identify alleged drugs. Sloppy procedures can raise doubts about the accuracy of test results.
  • Argue there is insufficient evidence to prove intent to distribute drugs versus simple possession for personal use.

Negotiate Lesser Charges

  • Attempt to negotiate with prosecutors to plead guilty to possession charges instead of trafficking to avoid mandatory minimums.
  • Argue for minor role reductions if the defendant was just a courier or lookout versus a leader of a trafficking organization. This can lower sentencing guidelines.

Highlight Mitigating Factors

  • Present evidence of the defendant’s small role in the organization and minimum criminal history to the judge for leniency at sentencing.
  • Get character references from employers, friends and family to show the defendant’s good qualities and potential for rehabilitation.
  • Argue that mandatory minimums are unjustly harsh for the particular circumstances of the case.

Trial Defenses

  • Raise reasonable doubt by contesting the defendant’s knowledge of drugs being trafficked.
  • Expose credibility issues with informants or undercover agents used to make controlled buys.
  • Allege law enforcement entrapment through coercive inducement tactics.

Consequences of a Federal Drug Trafficking Conviction

The impacts of a federal drug trafficking conviction extend far beyond just prison time[6]:

  • Lifelong criminal record that affects employment, housing, and other opportunities
  • Loss of federal benefits like financial aid, public housing, and food stamps
  • Deportation for non-citizen defendants
  • Difficulty traveling internationally to countries that ban entry for drug convictions
  • Loss of custody rights and other family legal issues
  • Social stigma and harm to the defendant’s reputation

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