Federal Cocaine Trafficking
Under 21 U.S.C. §§ 841 and 960, the federal crime of Cocaine Trafficking is committed when a person knowingly or intentionally manufactures, distributes, or dispenses 500 grams or more of powder cocaine mixture or 5 grams or more of cocaine base mixture.
Powder Cocaine vs. Cocaine Base Disparity
Powder cocaine and cocaine base are both chemical forms of cocaine, but differ in how they are manufactured, ingested, and their effects.
The primary distinguishing factor between the two forms of cocaine is that powder cocaine can only be snorted or dissolved in water and injected, whereas cocaine base can only be smoked. Common forms of cocaine base are freebase, coca paste, and crack cocaine.
Importantly, federal law punishes trafficking in cocaine base 18 times more severely than trafficking in the same quantity of powder cocaine.
The reason for this disparity is because cocaine base is considered to be more psychologically addicting than powder cocaine, more likely to result in chronic and heavy use, and more commonly associated with violent crime.
Conspiracy to Traffic in Cocaine
Conspiracy to traffic in cocaine occurs when two or more people work together to manufacture, distribute, or dispense cocaine unlawfully.
Importantly, conspiracy to traffic in cocaine can, and usually is, charged against minor participants such as a driver, a drug mule, or a street dealer connected to a cocaine distribution network.
The government charges minor participants with Conspiracy to Traffic in Cocaine because under 21 U.S.C. § 846, the penalties for Conspiracy to Traffic in Cocaine are the same as actual Cocaine Trafficking, which results in minor participants cutting deals to testify against major participants in order to avoid the enhanced Cocaine Trafficking penalties.
Penalties for Cocaine Trafficking
Federal law imposes mandatory minimum prison sentences and large fines on people convicted of Cocaine Trafficking. And unless the United States Attorney General agrees to waive the mandatory minimum sentencing requirements, the penalties for Cocaine Trafficking are as follows:
- Trafficking in 500-4,999 grams of powder cocaine mixture / 5 to 279 grams of cocaine base mixture
- Trafficking in 5 kilograms or more of powder cocaine mixture / 280 grams or more of cocaine base mixture
Trafficking in 500-4,999 grams of powder cocaine mixture / 5 to 279 grams of cocaine base mixture
Under federal law, the crime of trafficking in 500-4,999 grams of powder cocaine mixture or 5 to 279 grams of cocaine base mixture is a Class B felony, punishable by five to forty years in prison to be followed by four years of supervised release and up to five million dollars in fines.
Under the United States Sentencing Guidelines, trafficking in 500-4,999 grams of powder cocaine mixture or 5 to 279 grams of cocaine base mixture carries a base offense level between 24-28, but a judge is required to impose a minimum prison sentence of five years in prison, unless the defendant qualifies for the safety valve or the government requests a downward departure.
Trafficking in 5 kilograms or more of powder cocaine mixture / 280 grams or more of cocaine base mixture
Under federal law, the crime of trafficking in 5 kilograms or more of powder cocaine mixture or 280 grams or more of cocaine base mixture is a Class A felony, punishable by ten years to life in prison to be followed by five years of supervised release and up to ten million dollars in fines.
Under the United States Sentencing Guidelines, trafficking in 500-4,999 grams of powder cocaine mixture or 5 to 279 grams of cocaine base mixture carries a base offense level between 30-38, but a judge is required to impose a minimum prison sentence of ten years in prison, unless the defendant qualifies for the safety valve or the government requests a downward departure.
Defenses to Cocaine Trafficking
Entrapment occurs when an undercover law enforcement officer or confidential informant induces a person to commit a criminal offense that the person would otherwise have been unlikely to commit. If it can be shown you were entrapped, the court can dismiss the charges against you.
Illegal Search and Seizure
Often, law enforcement exceed the scope of their authority and require people to submit to a vehicle, home, or body search when they otherwise would not be required to; coerce people into agreeing to a search; arrest people without probable cause; or obtain search warrants in bad faith.
If any of these can be proven through the filing of a Motion to Suppress, the courts will suppress the resulting evidence as having been illegally obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment of the United States; which can lead to an outright dismissal of the case.
The prosecutor can only prove you possessed cocaine for the purposes of trafficking in one of two ways:
To prove that you actually possessed cocaine, the prosecutor has to show the cocaine was found on your person. So if the cocaine was found in your personally owned car while you were driving, the prosecutor would have a case involving actual possession of cocaine.
On the other hand, if the cocaine was found in a place where more than one person had access, the prosecutor would have a much more difficult time proving you possessed the cocaine because they would have to comply with the law of constructive possession.
The law of constructive possession requires the prosecutor to prove each of three distinct elements before you can be convicted:
- Knowledge of the cocaine's presence;
- Knowledge the substance was cocaine; and
- Dominion and control over the cocaine.
Below are scenarios where it could be argued the prosecutor could not meet their burden of proving constructive possession.
Scenario 1: You were stopped while driving a friend's car and police found cocaine in the trunk, they would be unable to convict you of Cocaine Trafficking unless they had some proof that you knew the cocaine was there.
Scenario 2: You were stopped while driving a friend's car and police found a cocaine package in the back seat, but in plain view. They would be unable to convict you of Cocaine Trafficking unless they had some proof that you knew the package contained cocaine.
Scenario 3: You were driving your car, had a friend with you, and your friend takes a package with cocaine in it and places it in the passenger side door pocket. The police then stop you, see your friend's package, and arrest both of you. As long as there is not evidence you were working in conjunction with your friend, they would be unable to convict you of Cocaine Trafficking because, even though you knew the cocaine was there, your friend is the only person who had dominion and control over it.
While not technically a defense, Substantial Assistance is the most commonly utilized method to avoid the minimum-mandatory sentencing required for the crime of Cocaine Trafficking.
The prosecutor is authorized by statute to ask the court to reduce or suspend a sentence of any person who is convicted of drug trafficking when the person provides substantial assistance in the identification, arrest, or conviction of any other person engaged in trafficking in controlled substances.
This remedy is routinely offered pursuant to a "Substantial Assistance Contract" that requires you to "assist" law enforcement in arresting a specific amount of individuals involved in trafficking drugs within a limited period of time.
However, if you are unable to deliver the specified amount of people, you will be required to serve the applicable mandatory minimum prison sentence; regardless of how hard you tried to "assist" law enforcement.
Contact Federal Defense Lawyer Richard Hornsby
The initial consultation is free and I am always available to advise you on the proper course of action that can be taken.