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Federal vs. State Drug Crimes

Judge and Gavel

Federal drug crimes are, essentially, the same as state drug crimes. All of the different drug types that are illegal to either possess or sell in state court are also illegal to possess or sell in federal court. There are a couple of areas in which the federal and the state differ regarding drug crimes, some small, some major.

One of the minor differences between federal and state drug charges is a matter of vocabulary. The term “trafficking,” for example, is not part of the federal crime vernacular. Federal drug trafficking really is just a general name for being charged with a federal drug crime. Whereas in the state courts (at least, in South Carolina), the amount of drugs allegedly involved determines what a person is charged with, and the charge itself determines possible sentencing, in the federal court, only the type and the weight of the particular drug determines the sentence according to federal sentencing guidelines. You may also hear the term “historical drug case” in federal court – this term is really used more by lawyers than anyone else to describe a kind of case where drugs were not found.

The two major differences between federal and state drug charges are in the number of co-defendants in a typical case and in the type of evidence needed for arrest.

In terms of co-defendants, you may often find that a drug case in federal court will indict many people – perhaps ten (10) people, twenty (20) people, thirty (30) people or more – in a wide-ranging federal ‘drug conspiracy.’ It’s often a situation where an investigation starts with a single person being arrested and charged with drug trafficking or drug dealing and then that person starts saying that they were involved with other people. They do this to give evidence to the government to help themselves – to reduce their own sentence and help their own plea bargain – and they start describing different acts that they allege took place where other people participated. As that investigation continues, more people are charged, and those newly charged individuals also frequently cooperate and start describing things, and so it expands out and a great many people end up being charged in the drug conspiracy. This is what these investigations are designed to do. Those conspiracies have special rules so that people are held accountable for some conduct that they did not even participate in.

When it comes to evidence, arrests can be made in a federal drug case even if the person was never actually caught with any drugs, in fact, a great many times the people charged in the conspiracy were never caught with any drugs. It’s can be very puzzling to people to try to understand how they can be charged with drug crimes in federal court when they never had any drugs on them. In a federal drug conspiracy, many people were never caught with drugs, but they’re charged in that conspiracy because other people, co-conspirators or cooperating witnesses, allege that that person did commit drugs crimes on certain dates. Often, it’s simply a situation where witnesses are willing to come into court and testify that you’ve participated in it, and that is enough. That’s a big difference between federal court and state court, certainly in South Carolina.

Another small but important difference to note: under the federal drug laws, a person charged with a drug crime is presumed not eligible for bail which means that they can be held in jail and not released on bond pending trial. This is important to know because it can happen that state or local police can arrest someone for a drug charge and, especially if high drug weights, or weapons or large sums of money are also involved, the police can then contact a federal agency such as the ATF or DEA, and if the United States attorney agrees to adopt the case, a federal hold can be placed upon the accused which can keep him or her in jail pending trial.

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