When are Drug Charges Prosecuted at the Federal Level?

When many people think of drug trafficking the first things that come to mind may be high level drug dealers, people who are in the business of manufacturing (or growing) illegal substances or people who illegally sell prescription medications.  But the truth is that drug trafficking charges can be filed against anyone and includes a broad range of activities such as the sale, transport, transfer, and import/export of controlled substances (including prescription medications), illegal drugs, and marijuana as well as the possession of drugs with the intent to sell.

In addition, a person can be charged with trafficking rather than simple drug possession depending factors such as the weight and quantity of the substance found, if items such as scales, vials or other “containers” that are associated with drug distribution are present or if a person is found to be in possession of the raw materials or equipment required to manufacture illegal substances.  Drug trafficking charges can be applied even if a sale has not been completed but the intent was there; when drugs are given away with no exchange of money; or if someone helps another person transport or sell a controlled or illegal substance.

When Federal Charges Get Filed

In California drug trafficking offenses are prosecuted under the Uniform Controlled Substances Act (HS 11379) but they can also be prosecuted at the federal level under 21 U.S.C. § 841. Federal drug trafficking charges can be filed when any of the following circumstances are present:

  • When an arrest was made during or as part of a federal investigation or the arrest was made by a federal agency;
  • When an unusually large amount of methamphetamine is involved;
  • When the transport or sale of an illegal or controlled substance occurred across state or national borders; or
  • When the sale or distribution occurs in more than one state.

The federal government may also be involved when the sale or distribution occurs in areas of the country targeted for intensified surveillance and aggressive investigation due to high volume drug activity.  These regions are known as a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA).  In California this includes the borders of New Mexico, Arizona, Texas and Mexico.  What this means is that while an offense may have occurred in California without actually crossing the border, if it’s in one of the HIDTA areas, federal charges may still apply.

Federal Sentencing Guidelines

Federal sentencing guidelines for drug trafficking are uniform across all 50 states and set forth minimum and maximum penalties which may include prison time, fines or both.  Depending upon the circumstances of your case, you could potentially be charged with an aggravated felony and/or the courts may choose to apply enhancements to the charge which can increase the penalty substantially.  Enhancements are mitigating factors that are considered to raise the severity of the crime.  Some examples of enhancements related to drug trafficking charges include:

  • Distribution or sale of an illegal or controlled substance to a person under the age of 21;
  • Distribution or sale occurring within 1,000 feet of a college or school;
  • Death or serious injury as a result of the use of the substance that was distributed
  • History of prior drug related convictions;
  • Placement of boobytraps or explosives on the property where a controlled substance is being held;
  • Possession or use of a firearm; or
  • Obstruction of justice or resisting arrest.

Prison time and fines are not the only consequences of a federal drug trafficking conviction.  A person who is convicted may be denied certain civil rights; be disqualified for access to federal benefit programs; be forced to forfeit assets; have their professional licenses suspended or revoked; face deportation if not a US citizen, or become ineligible for US citizenship.

Why hire a law firm that practices federal criminal defense?

If you have been charged with a drug trafficking offense it is important to hire an attorney who is fully knowledgeable and experienced with state and federal laws and sentencing guidelines.  An attorney who is licensed to practice in both courts understands how your federal case can be affected by the outcome of your state case and will build the best defense in order to minimize the penalty.  Based upon the specifics of your case, it may be possible to get the charges dropped; for example, if the evidence against you was obtained during an illegal search, if you can demonstrate a lack of intent, or you can reasonably show that you had no knowledge.


If you or a loved one has been charged with a federal crime, call to talk with a skilled criminal defense lawyer today: 619-363-1405 or email us at matt@lawofficemjs.com.