Federal Crimes

Federal Drug Charges

Aside from immigration offenses, drug offenses are some of the most common types of charges in Arizona federal district courts.  The penalties for federal drug charges, even first time offenses, can be severe because there are mandatory minimum sentences that often apply. If a mandatory minimum sentences applies, the the judge has no choice but to impose at least the minimum term of imprisonment.

Whether a mandatory minimum sentence applies depends on factors like the type and quantity of drug involved and the specific crime charged.  These mandatory sentences don’t apply to simple possession cases (although it is unlikely that you could successfully claim simple possession for personal use given the quantities listed below), but do apply to manufacturing, transporting, distributing, and possessing with intent to distribute. They also apply when someone is charged with conspiring to commit any of those crimes.

Mandatory Minimum Sentences For Federal Drug Charges

There is a mandatory minimum sentence of 5 years for first offenses involving more than:

  • 1 grams of LSD
  • 5 grams of methamphetamine if pure (or 50 grams if mixed)
  • 10 grams of PCP if pure (or 100 grams if mixed)
  • 28 grams of crack cocaine
  • 1oo grams of heroin
  • 500 grams of cocaine
  • 100 kilograms of marijuana (or 100 marijuana plant)

The mandatory minimum sentence increases to 10 years for the following quantities:

  • 10 grams of LSD
  • 50 grams of methamphetamine if pure (or 500 grams if mixed)
  • 100 grams of PCP if pure (or 1 kilogram if mixed)
  • 280 grams of crack cocaine
  • 1 kilogram of heroin
  • 5 kilograms of cocaine
  • 1000 kilograms of marijuana (or 1000 marijuana plants)

The minimum sentences increase to 10 years and 20 years if the defendant has a similar prior conviction.  These mandatory minimum sentences may not be justified, but they are the law and judges have no choice but to impose them.  If you are convicted of one of these crimes, there are only two ways around the mandatory minimum sentence: cooperation with the government and the “safety valve” provision.

Federal Safety Valve Provision

“Safety valve” is an exception to the mandatory minimum sentencing requirements.  It allows judges to sentence first-time, non-violent drug offenders to a term that is less than the mandatory minimum term under the following conditions:

  • Offender has zero or minimal criminal history — only one criminal history point is allowed, so an offender might be eligible if he had one prior conviction, for which he received a sentence of less than 60 days in jail, in the last five years.
  • Offender did not use violence or have a weapon during the offense.
  • There was no death or serious physical injury.
  • Offender was not an organizer, leader, manager, or supervisor of others involved during the offense, and was not part of a continuing criminal enterprise.
  • Offender must provide the government with all the information he has about the offense prior to being sentenced.

If a defendant qualifies under the safety valve provision, then the judge is free to impose whatever sentence he or she thinks is appropriate after consulting the sentencing guidelines and considering all of the statutory sentencing factors.

Hiring A Federal Criminal Defense Attorney

When charged with a federal drug offense, you need an experienced federal criminal defense attorney. The same defenses that exist in state court for selling drugs and possessing drugs for sale may also apply in federal court. Even if don’t believe you can prevail at trial, or you don’t want to risk losing at trial, your attorney may be able to negotiate a plea agreement that allows you to avoid a mandatory minimum sentence.  An experienced federal criminal defense attorney can also determine whether the facts of your case fall within the safety valve provision, can try to convince the judge that you do fall within the safety valve provision, can guide you through any debriefing with the government, and can argue for a reduced sentence based on the sentencing guidelines and statutory sentencing factors.

If you are facing federal drug charges in Arizona, we can help. Call for a free, confidential case assessment at 520.314.4125 or contact us online.

Criminal Law Resources