Law enforcement has become increasingly aggressive when it comes to large-scale drug trafficking cases. Since 2011, heroin trafficking arrests have increased 50 percent. Collectively, heroin, methamphetamines, cocaine, and marijuana account for about 90 percent of all drug trafficking arrests in the United States.
Drug trafficking is a serious felony, and although laws have moderated somewhat since the 1990s, a conviction could still mean significant prison time. Most large trafficking arrests involve extensive networks. So, a person might sell a few baggies of crystal meth, and because of conspiracy laws, be caught in a huge, multiagency prosecution.
The good news is that almost half of drug traffickers have little or no criminal history. Since many jurors now see drug problems as a health and safety issue as opposed to a criminal law issue, that lack of criminal background makes it easier for a Marietta criminal defense attorney to successfully resolve these cases. Such resolutions are even more probable if there is a valid defense, as outlined below.
Georgia Drug Trafficking Laws
At the federal level, mandatory minimums are largely gone. But Georgia state laws still provide for harsh mandatory minimum sentences in drug trafficking cases. Here are a few examples:
- Four grams of heroin (about one teaspoon): minimum five years,
- Ten pounds of marijuana: minimum five years, and
- Twenty-eight grams pf meth (about seven teaspoons): minimum ten years.
Mandatory minimums are not always mandatory in Cobb County. Marietta criminal defense attorneys and prosecutors can agree on a sentence below the minimum. Additionally, prosecutors often waive the mandatory minimum if the defendant turns state’s evidence. Finally, after a defense motion, the judge may waive the mandatory minimum if the defendant was not a ringleader, had no weapon, and had no prior felonies.
As outlined below, the amount of drugs almost always draws the line between simple possession and drug trafficking.
The law also provides for a number of drug trafficking enhancements. The minor enhancement is a good example. If the defendant engaged or hired someone under 17 to assist the drug trafficking operation in any way, the maximum penalty is twenty years in prison. Georgia law also includes some drug-free zones, such as schools, recreation centers, and parks. The enhancement could apply if the offense occurs within 1,000 feet (about three football fields) of a prohibited zone.
Typically, large-scale drug distribution arrests involve multiagency investigations that last many months. Eventually, investigators obtain enough information to get search warrants. These huge investigations have lots of moving parts. Therefore, there are a lot of things which could go wrong.
These warrants often rely, at least in part, on paid informants. Typically, these informants get paid a lot of money. In other situations, they receive leniency or even immunity. In either case, their reliability is suspect. Many people will say almost anything if there is a substantial reward available.
Once upon a time, courts used an objective standard to determine informant reliability. Now, Cobb County judges use a more subjective test. Some factors to consider include:
- Informant’s track record,
- Amount of compensation the informant received,
- Informer’s relationship with law enforcement
- Specificity of the information provided, and
- Any facts which corroborated the information provided.
When it comes to search warrant validity, Cobb County prosecutors cannot work backwards. They cannot argue that since officers found drugs, the information must have been reliable. The probable cause affidavit stands or falls on its own.
Search Warrant Exceptions
In other cases, peace officers get lucky. An officer detains a motorist for a minor traffic violation or at a DUI checkpoint. At the stop, police officers discover a large quantity of drugs.
Since officers almost never have warrants at traffic stops, the seized evidence is only admissible in court if a narrow search warrant exception applies. Some common ones in drug trafficking cases include:
- Consent: Only property owners, or people with apparent ownership authority, can consent to dwelling, vehicle, container (g. backpacks), and other property searches. The state must prove that the owner consented, as opposed to assented. The state must also prove that the owner did not withdraw that consent.
- Plain View: If officers see drugs or other contraband, they may seize it, even if they do not have search warrants. That’s assuming officers were lawfully in that place to begin with. So, if the traffic stop or DUI roadblock was invalid, the seized drugs are inadmissible.
- Exigent Circumstances: This exception allows officers to search property, like a vehicle or dwelling, if they believe someone is in trouble. This belief must be reasonable. A hunch or suspicion is usually not good enough. During their safety sweeps, they may seize any contraband they find in plain view.
Other common search warrant exceptions include the automobile exception and a search incident to a lawful arrest. However, automobile searches require probable cause and searches incident to arrests are quite limited.
Lack of Supporting Evidence
Evidence seizure is not enough to establish drug trafficking, at least in most cases. Typically, seized drugs only establish possession. To enhance charges to drug trafficking, most prosecutors rely on additional circumstantial evidence, such as:
- Amount of drugs,
- Cash, and
Circumstantial evidence is subject to interpretation. Granted, if officers find a trunk load of marijuana, any attorney would be hard-pressed to successfully argue that all those drugs were for personal use. But aside from such extreme circumstances, such arguments are usually plausible.
Additionally, in staged press conferences, police officers usually lay out the seized drugs next to cash, weapons, and any other circumstantial evidence they found. But in reality, cash or baggies in the kitchen might have little to do with drugs in the garage.
Alternatively, prosecutors often rely on confessions. If officers do not time give suspects their Miranda rights (you have the right to remain silent, you have the right to an attorney, etc.), the confession is inadmissible. Any arrests based at least in part on that confession are also invalid.
Resolving Drug Trafficking Claims
Plea bargains resolve most drug trafficking claims. Frequently, these resolutions occur on the eve of trial. Unless Cobb County prosecutors know that a Marietta criminal defense attorney is fully prepared to go to trial, prosecutors usually do not make their best offers.
In drug trafficking cases, many pleas involve a lesser included offense, such as simple possession. Generally, these punishments are much lighter and there is no mandatory minimum prison sentence.
Alternatively, many drug trafficking defendants might receive pretrial diversion. That’s especially true if they were rather low on the ladder and they have no prior felony convictions. If defendants complete some program requirements, such as community service and a drug education class, prosecutors normally dismiss the charges.
These positive resolutions are much more likely if there is a solid defense. In these cases, prosecutors are usually unwilling to risk a trial, especially given the prevailing attitude about drugs mentioned above.
Drug trafficking charges could mean significant penalties, but there are a number of possible defenses. For a free consultation with an experienced criminal defense attorney in Marietta, contact the Phillips Law Firm, L.L.C. Convenient payment plans are available.