Review of International Drug Offenses and Best Defenses
International drug trafficking occurs when someone manufactures, distributes, or sells controlled substances between countries.
Due to the effort to stop people and drug cartels from illegally importing and exporting controlled substances, the federal government thoroughly investigates and aggressively prosecutes issues related to international drug offenses.
These type of federal criminal cases are often complex as federal law enforcement agencies, such as the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), have spent months, or even years, investigating and building a case for prosecution.
International drug crimes are among the most serious offenses on the books. If convicted, you could face substantial prison time, hefty fines, and a criminal record that follows you on employment, housing, and government benefit applications for the rest of your life.
Facing a federal drug charge can be intimidating, but it doesn't have to be.
Read on to learn more from our federal criminal defense lawyers about these crimes and potential penalties, so you can begin fighting the charges against you.
What Are International Drug Crimes?
As noted, international drug offenses involve the trafficking of an illicit drug between countries. These activities may include growing, manufacturing, distributing, or selling the drug, and all fall under federal jurisdiction.
Before an arrest for international drug trafficking, the federal government has likely devoted many years and countless resources to developing a case, which means it strenuously pursues and prosecutes these charges and also that charges can be difficult to overcome without experienced legal counsel.
Some of the most commonly prosecuted federal laws against drug trafficking include:
- 21 U.S.C. § 841 — prohibits any person from knowingly or intentionally distributing, dispensing, or manufacturing a controlled substance as well as possessing any controlled substance with intent to manufacture, distribute, or dispense.
- 21 U.S.C. § 846— prohibits any person from attempting to commit drug trafficking or conspire with others to do so. Trafficking does not have to actually occur or be successful for charges to be filed under this statute.
What is Drug Trafficking?
Drug trafficking, which is frequently called drug distribution, occurs when someone manufactures, sells, transports, or imports illegal narcotics, controlled substances, and prescription drugs.
Put simply, international drug crime offenses are closely related to federal drug trafficking charges. The prosecutor has to be able to prove, however, the defendant knowingly and intentionally participated in transporting the illegal drugs with the intent to sell or deliver them for commercial purposes.
Further, if someone possessed specific drug related items, such as scales for weighing, a lot of little baggies, and cash that show you were engaged in a large scale illegal drug operation, then they could face federal drug trafficking charges. 21 U.S. Code § 848 defines the crime of continuing criminal enterprise.
Why is Drug Trafficking a Federal Offense?
Clearly, trafficking drugs is illegal under both state and federal laws, but the federal law enforcement agencies will normally get involved when the activity includes large quantities of drugs or when the drug distribution crosses state lines.
When people here the term “drug trafficking,” they often think of Mexican drug cartels or international drug operations run by life-long professional criminals.
However, this is not always true and many people who are just minor participants in drug distribution activity can find themselves facing serious federal charges. For example, 21 U.S.C. § 841 says it's a crime for someone to:
- “knowingly or intentionally, with intent, to manufacture, distribute, dispense, or possess a controlled substance, or counterfeit substance.”
This means that under this federal statute, drug trafficking or drug conspiracy charges can even be filed against somebody who was found in possession of a specific amount of illegal narcotics or a controlled substance, even if they were not being sold commercially.
What is a Controlled Substance?
Controlled substances are clearly a drug or chemical whose manufacture or possession is regulated under the federal government's Controlled Substances Act.
These drugs are placed into “schedules” based on their accepted medical use and potential for abuse or dependence.
Obviously, some drugs like heroin have a high risk of dependency and no medical use in the United States, which places it under Schedule I.
Drugs that contain codeine have some accepted medical uses and a lower risk of dependency, which places them under Schedule V drugs.
The most common drugs involved in a federal drug trafficking case include the following:
Further, many popular prescription medications are often involved in drug trafficking, such as fentanyl, oxycodone, valium, hydrocodone, morphine, xanax, and more.
Penalties for International Drug Trafficking
The federal government has an elaborate framework for the penalties associated with international drug trafficking. The potential penalties under the sentencing guidelines depend upon several factors, including:
- Crimes alleged,
- Type and amount of the controlled substance,
- Your criminal record,
- Whether drugs were distributed to minors or near a school,
- Whether anyone sustained injuries or killed in the drug crime,
- Whether a minor was used in the drug operation.
Even if you are a first-time offender, your federal sentence might include some prison time after you are convicted.
Punishments can also include property forfeiture, huge fines and deportation for non-citizens of the United States.
Marijuana and Hashish
Even small amounts of trafficking marijuana (less than 50 kilograms) or hashish (10 kilograms or less) carry a prison term of up to five years and a fine of up to $250,000 for a first offense. A second offense doubles those limits.
For more than 10 kilograms of hashish, you could face a prison term of up to 20 years and a fine of up to $1 million. The same penalties apply to marijuana from 50 to 100 kilograms.
The penalties for marijuana trafficking get increasingly steeper until the most serious at 1,000 kilograms or more, for which you can face a minimum of 10 years' imprisonment up to life for a first offense.
If there is death or serious bodily injury, the potential sentence increases from 20 years to life and a fine of up to $10 million.
A second offense carries a 20 year to life in prison term and a fine of up to $20 million.
Cocaine, Fentanyl, Heroin, LSD, and PCP
For a first offense, these Schedule I and II drugs in smaller amounts carry prison terms of 5 to 40 years and a fine of up to $5 million. With death or serious bodily injury, the potential prison term is 20 years to life.
A second offense carries 10 years to life imprisonment and a fine of up to $8 million. If death or serious bodily injury are involved, the term is life.
For higher amounts of these drugs, even a first offense carries a potential life sentence, with a minimum of 10 years. With death or serious bodily injury, or a second offense, the minimum is doubled, and fines may reach up to $20 million.
For two or more prior offenses, the sentence is life and a fine of up to $20 million.
Note that even before prosecution, the federal government has the authority to confiscate property and cash they suspect has been obtained through illegal activity such as drug trafficking.
Experienced legal counsel can help you and your loved ones regain access to any property wrongfully seized.
Other Related Federal Crimes
When federal prosecutors bring international drug charges, there are often a host of other possible charges as well.
In addition to conspiracy charges as described above, you may also be charged with any or all of the following depending on your situation:
- 18 U.S.C. § 1956 – money laundering,
- 26 U.S.C. § 7201 – tax evasion,
- 21 U.S.C. § 863 – possession of drug paraphernalia,
- Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations – RICO.
The more charges levied against you, and the higher the amount of drugs involved, the more serious penalties you face.
Defending International Drug Offenses
Since the drug epidemic in the United States has increased sharply, federal government has become aggressive prosecuting international drug offenses.
In a federal drug trafficking cases, the federal prosecutor must prove beyond a reasonable doubt you committed the crime.
Even in a situation where guilt seems clear, there are specific elements of the crime that must be established to prove guilt, such as that you knowingly possessed the controlled substance and you participated in the sale or transport.
We might able to develop a defense strategy to persuade the prosecutor to reduce or drop the charges, or negotiate a favorable plea bargain.
Some common defenses against federal international drug crimes include the following:
- You were not in possession of the controlled substance,
- You had no intent to sell or distribute the narcotics,
- Insufficient evidence to obtain a conviction,
- Lack of probable cause by law enforcement,
- Illegal search and seizure,
- You are the victim of police entrapment.
If you are a citizen of another country and charged with a federal drug crime, then the United States government might be seeking to extradite you back here. We might be able to help you.
Eisner Gorin LLP is located in Los Angeles County, but represents clients in all of California and throughout the United States. Contact our law firm for an initial consultation at 877-781-1570.