Federal Sentencing Guidelines for Drug Trafficking

Contrary to popular belief, it's possible to "traffic" in illegal substances even if you merely possess them.

Enacted in the 1980’s, the federal sentencing guidelines for drug trafficking impose significant penalties for people convicted of federal drug trafficking crimes.

When most people hear the words “drug trafficking,” they imagine drug dealers or international drug smugglers; professional criminals who make their living from a life of crime.

The federal drug trafficking guidelines see it very differently. Under the federal laws, those found in possession of illicit substances can be convicted of a trafficking crime because on the amount of drugs found in their possession.

Drug Trafficking and Drug Possession

Under the federal statutes, the term “trafficking” has a specific meaning, one that is substantially different than the term’s common usage. A person commits the crime of drug trafficking when manufacturing, distributing, dispensing, or possessing with the intent to manufacture, distribute, or dispense any amount of a prohibited narcotic.

In other words, under the federal sentencing guidelines, the term “trafficking” is one that applies to situations that many people might view as possession.

(21 U.S.C. section 841)

Drug Trafficking Amount

Under the federal sentencing guidelines, drug trafficking offenses are triggered when a defendant is in possession of more than a specific amount of a prohibited substance. The amount of drugs a person has to be found with in order for the minimums to apply differs, depending on the substance.

For example, someone found in possession of 1 or more grams of LSD (lysergic acid diethylmide), 5 or more grams of crack cocaine, 500 or more grams of powdered cocaine, or 100 or more grams of heroin will face drug trafficking charges.

People who possess amounts below the minimum amount for drug trafficking can face drug possession charges that have substantially lower penalties associated with them.

No Longer Mandatory Penalties

One of the original features of the federal sentencing guidelines was its imposition of mandatory minimum sentences for drug trafficking crimes. With a mandatory minimum sentence, a court could not usually impose a criminal sentence less than those called for by the guidelines.

For example, someone convicted of possessing with the intent to distribute 5 grams of crack cocaine or 10 grams of methamphetamine would automatically receive a mandatory minimum sentence of 5 years federal probation, unless the judge applied a seldom-used "downward departure" from the guideline. If the amounts in possession increase to 50 grams of crack cocaine or 100 grams of methamphetamine, the mandatory minimum sentences would increase to 10 years in prison without the possibility of early parole. Substantial monetary fines were also mandatory.

However, in 2005 the Supreme Court of the United States issued a ruling in United States v Booker that effectively threw out the mandatory nature of the sentencing guidelines. The court ruled that judges were to consider the guidelines as advisory only, and could deviate from the mandatory sentences.

For a more detailed explanation of the sentences that federal judges can impose, read Federal Sentencing Guidelines: Mandatory or Not?

Minimums, Maximums, and Factors

The federal sentencing guidelines for drug trafficking impose both minimum and maximum penalties for those convicted of a drug trafficking crime.

The minimums represent the least severe sentence a court can impose in drug trafficking cases, but the guidelines also allow for maximum penalties. For example, someone convicted of trafficking in 100 – 999 kilograms of marijuana will face a minimum of 5 years in prison, but can face up to 40 years.

When determining the actual sentence, the court will take into consider certain factors. Has the defendant been convicted of prior crimes? Was someone injured or killed during the commission of the crime? Did the crime occur in a school zone? All of these factors, as well as others, affect the penalty the court will impose.

For example, someone convicted of a first offense of trafficking in 500 – 4,999 grams of powdered cocaine faces between 5 and 40 years in prison, as well as fines of up to $5 million. However, if the crime resulted in someone being seriously injured or killed, the same person faces at least 20 years and up to life in prison. Further, if the person convicted of the crime has a prior conviction, that person faces 10 years to life in prison and up to $10 million in fines. If someone was hurt or killed as a result of the crime, the same person faces a minimum sentence of life imprisonment.

Downward Adjustments

In addition to enhanced penalties when contributing factors are present, the federal sentencing guidelines also allow for lesser penalties when a defendant substantially assists federal prosecutors. “Substantial assistance” means that the defendant has provided federal prosecutors or law enforcement agents with information that helps them prosecute other criminals.

“Substantial assistance” is a hard to define term because it essentially gives federal prosecutors the ability to say what assistance a defendant has provided. Federal prosecutors must ask the sentencing court for a downward adjustment based on the defendant’s cooperation or assistance. What constitutes assistance will differ from case to case, and even from prosecutor to prosecutor.

(United States Sentencing Guidelines section 5K1.1(b))

You Need the Advice of an Experienced Attorney

The federal sentencing guidelines for drug trafficking are complicated, hard to interpret, and almost impossible to understand and apply if you’re not an experienced attorney. The sentence a court gives in any drug trafficking case will differ substantially depending on numerous factors, and only an experienced lawyer can tell you what might happen to you if you’re convicted. If you’re facing federal drug trafficking charges you need to speak to a criminal defense attorney immediately.

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