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What is Drug Trafficking Under California and Federal Laws?


Drug trafficking under California and federal laws consists of individuals who are involved in the drug trade in the sense that they’re moving drugs for money. Anybody who is profiting from the distribution of drugs is part of drug trafficking.

Anyone who actually moves the drugs, known as mules, are part of it. In other words, you can see several people being charged with conspiracy most of the time because not everybody is typically going to do every part of drug trafficking.

For instance, you have the users, the sellers, and the suppliers. Therefore, everybody in the drug trade is technically part of drug trafficking. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan really laid down the law and put a bunch of mandatory minimum sentences for federal cases.

That kind of set the bar and stage for what happens if you get caught moving large quantity of drugs. Recently, with the Step Act and other reforms, the government has pulled back a bit. However, if you’re moving large amounts of drugs or drug trafficking, and they catch you, they’re going to try to put you in either federal or state prison for a long time.

When is Drug Trafficking a Federal Crime?

In order for drug trafficking to be considered a federal crime, you have to be in a position where you’re somehow impacting interstate commerce, and that’s a pretty easy thing to do.

If you’re moving drugs from one state to another, that would make it federal. But, the feds can pretty easily get jurisdiction within the state depending on the scenario.

Large quantities of drugs in any type of sophistication will typically make it federal. When the feds get involved, they do wiretaps and spend money on resources to catch the people who are involved in drug trafficking.

In turn, those people are typically prosecuted at the federal level. But, the reality is that most drug trafficking is prosecuted by the state. Feds can’t prosecute everything.

They have their policy where there are requirements in order to deal with a case. There are a lot of cases that could be filed at either the state or federal level. The state will typically give the feds first crack at a case.

If they then decide to file, the state will step away. Sometimes, if enough time passes away, cases that are filed in state court are ultimately picked up by the feds. In other words, the state court dismisses their case, and the feds proceed with prosecution.

How Will I Know If I’m Charged with a Federal or State Drug Trafficking Charge?

In most cases, if the state government arrests you for a drug trafficking charge, they are typically going send it to the prosecutors in the state. If the federal agency arrests you, they are most likely the ones who will deal with the case.What is Drug Trafficking Under California and Federal Laws?

Of course, there are exceptions to that. For instance, sometimes there are multiple agencies involved in an arrest. For example, if they execute a search warrant for your house, and the FBI is there along with the local police, it would be difficult to figure out who’s going to prosecute you.

It’s going to be up to them based on the amount of drugs present, the sophistication level, and whether it is big enough for the feds to get involved.

Could my federal drug case ever be reduced to a state level charge in California? I have seen cases in which the feds are involved in the investigation, do all the work, and catch the person, but for some reason decide to involve the local government.

Also, something that happens a lot in the middle of a big drug investigation is that they pull somebody over, find them with drugs, and confirm that the wire trap on a few people has them talking about a particular drug.

However, the feds in these cases usually do not arrest everybody immediately in the federal case. For instance, let’s say there are ten defendants. The feds typically just arrest one guy, and let the state government prosecute that particular person.

That way, the other individuals don’t all have to be arrested at the same time. I’ve even seen them arrest somebody, and not file a case against them because they’re still waiting to collect more information before they indict everybody on the federal level.

Does the Type of Drug Have Any Impact on Type of Charges?

At the federal level, there’s criteria that dictates the potential sentencing depending on the drug charges. Usually, it’s going to depend on the weight of the drug that’s involved.

For example, they will treat marijuana differently than heroin. Heroin is generally considered a much more sinister drug. Much more damaging to society, and more expensive.

But, in reality, once you get past marijuana, I would say heroin, methamphetamine, and cocaine are all pretty much treated the same by the United States attorneys when it comes to prosecuting a person.

Moreover, if it’s a drug that’s banned by the government, and your trafficking it, even if it’s a synthetic drug, if the government is going after it, they’re going to try to treat just as harshly as they would any other drug that they perceive is dangerous to the public.

Why are There Enhancements for Drug Trafficking Charges Involving Minors?

Most of the enhancements that you see in both the state and federal level deal with the weight or amount of drugs that are involved. But any case that involves a minor in which there’s a crime going on, and it’s exploiting or involving the minor in some way, they’re going to try to figure out a way to add additional charges and enhancements.

However, there really isn’t a specific enhancement that relates to minors when it comes to drugs. Now, if they find out that someone’s using a minor to move drugs around, they would certainly come down much harsher on that particular person’s sentencing because they would consider it an aggravating factor.

That’s certainly something that the judge would consider if the case would be filed at the federal level. At the state level, the prosecutors would consider it when requesting the punishment for a defendant that was hurting a minor in some way.

How Has Legalization of Marijuana in California Impacted Drug Trafficking Charges?

At the state level, the legalization of marijuana in California has made the prosecution of drug charges a lot less problematic. Since the legalization of marijuana, a lot of those crimes have been filed as misdemeanors.

It’s a lot better for the defendant to not be taken to state prison. It also doesn’t seem that authorities are as excited about tracking down those cases since there are more dangerous drugs that can be prosecuted as felonies at the federal level.

Technically, marijuana is still illegal at the federal level, even in California. I just don’t think the feds are that excited about prosecuting it. But, they are prosecuting in other states.

If you’re in a in a state where it’s illegal, and you’re moving large quantities, the feds might get involved. Even if you’re moving quantities between states where marijuana is legal, if large quantities are involved in which people are making a lot of money and other activities are happening, the federal government will most likely go in and assert their authority.

What Additional Charges Can Be Added into a Federal or State Drug Trafficking Charge?

Additional drug charges in a case will depend on the circumstances. For example, I’ve had cases where, in addition to trafficking drugs, people also involved guns.

Involving guns with drugs will add more charges on a person’s record, which typically results in mandatory prison. Another common circumstance in which additional charges could be added is weight enhancement, depending on the type of drugs.

There’s a whole slew of different additional charges that can be tacked on to somebody who’s dealing in drugs. For instance, if there is movement between different states for purposes of trafficking, or if people are committing other crimes like shooting other people, that would justify additional charges.

The biggest one, however, is amount of drugs. But, it really depends on what a particular group or person is doing that will dictate whether additional charges are going to be filed.

Hedding Law Firm is a criminal defense law firm located in Los Angeles County at 16000 Ventura Blvd #1208 Encino, CA 91436. Contact us for a free case evaluation at (213) 374-3952.

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Ronald D. Hedding, ESQ.

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