Drug trafficking, also known as drug distribution, is the crime of selling, transporting, or illegally importing unlawful controlled substances, such as heroin, cocaine, marijuana, or other illegal drugs. Drug trafficking also applies to the illegal selling or transportation of prescription drugs, which has become an increasing problem in recent years. According to the Department of Justice, the sale and manufacture of drugs accounts for almost one-fifth of all drug-related arrests.
Proving Drug Trafficking
The crime of drug trafficking is similar to drug possession, since it requires that the perpetrator knowingly possesses an illegal controlled substance. Thus, an individual cannot engage in drug trafficking while being unaware that he or she is in possession of a drug, or if he or she reasonably but mistakenly believes that the substance is legal. However, drug trafficking also requires that a prosecutor show that the perpetrator was involved in the sale, transport, or importation of such drugs, or intended to sell or deliver the drugs. This additional requirement elevates the status of the crime and makes it a felony.
Drug trafficking is typically proven by establishing drug possession and then introducing additional circumstantial evidence or witness testimony.
Since possession and trafficking can look the same at first glance, prosecution for drug trafficking typically requires producing additional circumstantial evidence to indicate that a defendant is in possession of drugs not only for personal use but for commercial purposes. This may include the presence of a scale at the time of arrest, or other materials like plastic baggies or business cards. A prosecutor may also show that the defendant was in possession of a large amount of cash, or kept business records detailing his or her sales and purchases. Finally, the government may rely on the testimony of other witnesses who bought or sold drugs to the defendant, or were aware of his or her drug trafficking operation.
Penalties for Drug Trafficking
Drug trafficking is a very serious crime and is punished more harshly than drug possession. It is criminalized under both federal and state laws, and it is often prosecuted as a federal crime when a defendant moves drugs across state lines. Drug trafficking charges can be applied to small-scale street dealers or large drug cartels, and punishments will typically vary depending on the scale of the defendant’s operation and the type of drugs being trafficked. Thus, for instance, a defendant may face anywhere from 3-10 years of imprisonment and fines of over $100,000 for marijuana trafficking, but he or she may face up to 25 years in prison and fines of half a million dollars if convicted of trafficking in heroin. These sentences may be even higher if certain factors, called “enhancements,” are present. One example of an enhancement is selling drugs in a school zone.
Serious Penalties for a Serious Offense
Often, federal and state agents will work in tandem to investigate drug trafficking offenses, and federal, rather than state, charges are brought if the offense involves the crossing of state lines. Regardless, the penalties are steep in both state and federal court.
A conviction for drug trafficking also makes a criminal susceptible to additional punishments, particularly in the context of an international operation. This can include the forfeiture of all assets related to the drug trafficking business, such as bank accounts, cars, or properties used in the crime. Seizure of assets is often required if the defendant is sentenced to more than one year in jail. Additionally, since drug trafficking is a felony, it may also make defendants susceptible to immigration consequences, including possible deportation after a prison sentence is served.