The leafy and suburban lifestyle of Suffolk County has unexpectedly become a center of news attention just a few months into the Trump administration. Along with his Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the President of the United States has promised residents of Central Islip, Brentwood and other parts of Long Island that the presence of the MS-13 gang in Suffolk County will be dealt with at the state and federal levels.
What the President and his Attorney General are referring to is an international criminal gang that traces its roots to Southern California prisons in the early 1980s. Also known as Mara Salvatrucha, this gang has strong ties to El Salvador and is known to work with various Mexican drug cartels. In Suffolk County, MS-13 mostly operates at the street level and has been linked with the violent deaths of two teenage Brentwood girls who may have been involved in a gang feud.
Suffolk County is now the focus of a Congressional hearing on the gang problem affecting many communities across the United States. It is worth keeping in mind that MS-13 is known to fund its operations mainly through drug trafficking at many levels; due the attention that Suffolk County has received in 2017, federal agents are working with local law enforcement as they investigate MS-13 members and connections across Long Island.
State Versus Federal Drug Charges
Now that immigration and drug enforcement agents are coordinating cases in Suffolk County with local police officers, residents should expect to hear about arrests made for drug trafficking. Not all cases will be related to MS-13; in fact, there have already been controversial reports about people being arrested at courthouses as they were attending traffic infraction hearings or civil cases.
Many of the drug trafficking arrests reported by New York news media do not actually involve trafficking in the illegal trade of controlled substances. To a great extent, “trafficking” is a blanket term used by law enforcement officers when they make drug-related arrests in Suffolk County; the actual charges will be presented and pursued by state or federal prosecutors according to the arresting agency and the jurisdiction where the investigation took place.
With the above in mind, many cases start off as investigations into the actual drug trade in terms of sales, smuggling, transportation, and facilitation; however, it is not unusual to see prosecutors file drug possession charges. Federal cases are more likely to veer into trafficking, distribution and conspiracy; New York state prosecutors may be initially inclined to show intent of distribution before agreeing to a reduction to possession.
Getting the Best Outcome
The New York Penal Laws split possession charges into two separate groups: marijuana and all other substances. When marijuana is involved, skilled defense attorneys in New York will work towards getting the best outcome for their clients; such an outcome may include dismissing the case due to procedural issues, questioning the ability of the prosecution to clear burdens of proof such as constructive possession, or getting prosecutors to reduce the charges down to a simple violation.
New York jail sentences for drug offenses will vary according to the severity of the charges presented. For example, being convicted of a class E felony possession of cocaine could result in a one-year prison sentence if the defendant had previous convictions on record.
Aside from questioning the conduct of law enforcement officers and their procedural discipline, attorneys who defend clients charged with Suffolk County drug possession can also present affirmative defenses such as lack of knowledge.
When prosecutors file charges that suggest a defendant’s intent, ability and willingness to carry out a drug trafficking offense, the stakes tend to be higher. In these cases, New York prosecutors do not have to worry about proving possession beyond a reasonable doubt; however, this does not make it easy for them to secure a conviction.
Drug trafficking charges in New York are classified by offense levels. The fifth degree has a one-year minimum jail sentence up to 30 months; there may also be a monetary fine based on double the amount of profits made from the sale up to $5,000. Major drug trafficking cases can result in convictions of minimum 15 years in prison and a maximum life sentence plus a $100,000 fine.
Similar to possession cases, trafficking can be defended based on lack of intent and lack of knowledge, particularly if prosecutors do not have enough to file possession charges. The problem with many drug trafficking cases in Suffolk County and across New York is that they are often brought to prosecutors based on testimony from informants or from the activities of undercover agents; this opens up opportunities for lawyers to question the investigative methods, the integrity of informants, the way evidence was collected, and the very delicate issue of entrapment.
Even though New York has come a long way from the era of Rockefeller Drug Laws and their harsh punishments, it is imperative that defendants facing drug felony charges get adequate representation. All defendants enjoy certain rights, but it is up to skilled lawyers to protect those rights on behalf of their clients.
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