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When is a Drug Crime a Federal Offense?

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This article considers why and when an individual arrested for drug charges ends up in a federal prison.

Most people arrested on drug charges interact with local law enforcement professionals, but anyone arrested for a drug offense may face federal drug charges if the matter is both a state and federal crime.

Are you or someone you know facing federal drug charges?
ontact criminal defense attorney Brett Podolsky for help today >>

Drug Crimes in the United States

At least 1.5 million individuals are arrested for drug crimes each year in the United States. Approximately 20 percent of the arrests concern manufacture or sales of drugs; about 80 percent are possession crimes. If you or someone you care about has been arrested on a drug charge, you may have questions about what paths end in the federal system.

#1: If the arrest was made by a federal officer for a range of charges, your case will probably be determined by the federal system. Even a so-called “minor” crime of smoking a marijuana joint in a national park can end up in the federal courts:

  • Getting caught in a Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) drug bust or having any individual inform on your drug manufacture, sales, or possession of drugs can end up in the federal courts.
  • If another individual facing federal drug charges informs federal agents about your alleged habits, he or she may get leniency for his or her cooperation.
  • Finally, the matter may end up in the federal courts because federal and state prosecutors decide it. If the defendant in this scenario doesn’t appeal the decision, his or her case is sent to the federal authorities.

#2: The federal system is recognized for its harsh minimum sentences:

  • Inmates don’t have access to parole in federal prisons. For that reason, populations in the federal prison system continue to grow.
  • Approximately 60 percent of inmates in the federal system are serving time for drug charges.
  • About 20-25 percent of state inmates are serving drug offense sentences.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), more than 1.8 million defendants (2007) were arrested for drug crimes. Some cases were referred to the federal level. Since so many federal and state laws concern controlled substances, when is a specific drug crime a federal offense?

Federal Drug Charges vs. State Drug Charges

State drug laws focus on cases that occur with a state’s geographical borders. Federal drug charges focus on those activities occurring on federal lands or crossing the state’s lines.

In some cases, an accused may violate both state and federal laws. The bottom line is that a defendant accused of any drug offense may be charged with breaking federal laws.

How a Drug Offense Becomes a Federal Charge

1. The jurisdiction of an offense must be considered. If the defendant is arrested by a federal officer, he or she is likely to face a federal charge. Although local law enforcement agents may work in tandem with federal agents, the rule of thumb is that if federal agencies are involved, the defendant is likely to face federal charges.

2. An informant may have provided information about the defendant to obtain leniency in his or her own case. A prosecutor or just may show leniency to an accused if he or she agrees to inform on others within his or her network. For that reason, if another party provides information about a defendant—and he or she is charged of a drug crime at the federal level—resulting charges, if any, are most likely federal charges.

3. Decisions made between state and federal employees play a role. Enforcement branches of the state and federal government are sometimes entwined in a drug arrest. In some instances, federal and state prosecutors agree that charges against the defendant should be brought in federal court. Unfortunately, prison sentences are often longer when the case is managed by federal authorities.

4. The seriousness of a drug offense may result in federal charges. The most severe offenses are often considered in the federal system. For instance, a simple possession case may remain at the state level but a drug manufacturing, trafficking or intent to distribute charge is most likely to be tried in the federal court system. A criminal act that indicates the participant(s) might have conducted a criminal enterprise and/or made significant profits is likely to face federal drug charges.

Federal and State Drug Charge Differences

  • A first offenders’ state offense is typically considered less serious. The defendant may face lighter punishments as a result.
  • Various federal mandates impose mandatory incarceration sentences. A defendant convicted of a federal drug offense typically serves a significant prison term. These federal laws recognize state offenders for serious drug and/or violent crimes.
  • If the defendant signs a plea agreement in the federal system, he or she may have fewer opportunities to appeal a conviction. The Bureau of Prisons doesn’t have a parole program in place.
  • Federal sentencing law includes the option of probation, but participation is essentially non-existent.

For these reasons and others, a federal drug crime charge is usually punished with a significant prison term that is often harsher than a Texas drug charge.

In addition, a federal drug charge may also open the defendant to other charges that don’t seem related to the original charge. A distribution or trafficking charge may result in a Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) or tax evasion charge.

How to Defend against Federal Drug Charges

A federal drug charge is very serious. It is likely to affect the defendant’s life (as well as his or her loved ones) for many years. Regardless of the drug offense involved, any criminal conviction on your record has severe consequences.

The following drug crimes may be tried at the state or federal level.

Drug paraphernalia

Typically, drug paraphernalia is used to describe equipment needed to conceal, prepare, inhale, or inject controlled or illegal drug substances. The National Drug Intelligence Center states it is illegal for an individual or group of individuals to important, sell, or expert drug paraphernalia. Drug paraphernalia includes (but isn’t limited to) 1) bongs, 2) syringes, 3) pipes, and 4) rolling papers.

Drug paraphernalia is frequently designed to look like it’s designed for a legal purpose. For instance, a bong may be labelled that it’s for use with tobacco. However, it’s entirely possible to face a drug paraphernalia charge depending on where the user bought the item or its appearance.

Drug possession

Drug possession laws vary between the states. However, it is a federal and state crime to possess an illicit controlled substance such as heroin, cocaine, or marijuana. (Note that a vigorous argument continues today between states that have approved marijuana for personal use and the federal government.)

An individual in possession of any illegal substance may face a simple possession charge or a possession with intent to distribute charge:

  • Possession is often the charge for a defendant who possessed a small amount of drugs. A larger amount of drugs may prompt a charge of possession with intent to distribute. An intent to distribute charge may lead to more severe punishments and penalties.
  • Drug paraphernalia laws may be combined with drug possession charges.

Consult Houston drug attorney Brett Podolsky about your case >>

Drug manufacturing or drug delivery charges

The defendant may face a drug manufacturing charge if he or she was involved in any part of an illegal drug’s production process. Delivery of an illegal drug is also a federal and state crime.

Generally, a prosecutor must prove the defendant’s intent to manufacture and drug possession to convict the accused drug manufacturer. However, once convicted, the drug manufacturer is likely to face a significant prison sentence and harsh fines.

Drug trafficking

Both drug trafficking and drug distribution laws make it a crime to import, sell, or transport illegal substances like cocaine and marijuana.

Drug trafficking and distribution is considered a more significant crime than mere drug possession because this crime typically involves the transport of larger amounts of controlled substances.
Possession of a larger amount of any drug may cause police to conclude that the possessor intended to sell them. In that case, the defendant may be charged with distribution. A drug trafficking conviction can result in a minimum of three years to life behind bars.

Drug dealing

A drug dealer typically sells illegal substances on a smaller scale than the drug trafficker. However, state dealing and trafficking laws differ from federal laws.

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) establishes federal punishments for drug trafficking and dealing:

  • Selling 49.9 grams or less of marijuana may result in a maximum five-year prison sentence and $250,000 in fines.
  • Selling 1,000 kilos of marijuana may result in a 10-year to life prison sentence.

Accused of a Drug Crime? You Need an Experienced Federal Defense Lawyer

Drug crime cases are challenging. A case may involve both Texas and federal crimes. If you or someone you care about is facing a drug crime charge, you need an experienced federal defense lawyer to protect your rights as soon as possible.

Contact the Law Office of Brett A. Podolsky in Houston at 713-227-0087 or email to schedule an initial case evaluation.

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