Can Students Face Federal Charges in College Drug Cases?

Drug use and distribution is very common on college campuses, especially in fraternities and sororities. Many students, especially those at more elite colleges, do not take drug abuse very seriously and doubt they’ll ever face consequences. After all, law enforcement does patrol campuses and seems to be well aware of what goes on in house parties, but just looks the other way.

However, this perception that law enforcement is relaxed on college drug use is false. While the government may not always be interested in going after every individual drug possession crime, they may just be monitoring the situation over a long period of time, waiting for the moment they uncover enough evidence of a drug trafficking scheme or conspiracy.

There are times when students may not only be facing off against campus police or the state government, but the federal government as well. Such a case in North Carolina was recently announced, where the DEA along with local police forces uncovered a drug trafficking scheme on college campuses.

Below we discuss the details about this North Carolina campus investigation that we know so far and what it could mean for the students. If you are a student, or a parent of any student who may be investigated or is facing charges on a college campus drug case, we recommend that you reach out to an experienced attorney immediately. An investigation alone presents a risk of expulsion from school and criminal penalties if you are not prepared and well represented.

person guilty of drug trafficking for distributing large quantities of pills

What Happened on North Carolina College Campuses?

CHAPEL HILL, N.C (WRAL) — On December 17, 2020, U.S Attorney and UNC alumnus Matthew Martin reported that 21 people have been arrested in an ongoing drug trafficking investigation at and around University of North Carolina Chapel Hill (UNC), Duke University, and Appalachia State (App State). As they discuss in the video below, with the investigation ongoing, other involved parties may be uncovered on these campuses and others.

These charges stem from an investigation that began back in November 2018, where the Drug Enforcement Administration and Orange County Sheriff’s Office started an investigation into cocaine distribution in the Chapel Hill area.

It quickly became clear that trafficking of many drugs was happening around college campuses and especially at or near UNC fraternity organizations. As Martin said:

I want to make it very clear, this is not a situation where you have single users. . . where you have a 19 year old sipping a beer, where you have someone taking a puff of a join on the back-porch of a frat-house. These are 21 hardened drug dealers. This conspiracy moved 1000's of pounds of marijuana over the course of several years. 100's of kilos of cocaine, LSD, molly or mdma, mushrooms, steroids, human growth hormones, xanax, [and] other narcotics.

Various fraternities were involved as drug activity sites, namely UNC chapters of Phi Gamma Delta, Kappa Sigma, and Beta Theta Pi, as well as Delta Chi on App State so far in the investigation.

Martin when on to mention how the drugs were trafficked using “very sophisticated methods” including encrypted mobile applications and payment transfer services such as Venmo or Paypal. In discussing how these crimes came about, Martin emphasized that the focus of this investigation was to put an end to a dangerous drug culture, saying:

Dealers set up inside these houses, poisoning fellow members of their fraternity, fueling a culture. And that's why I say today is about saving lives. Because this reckless culture has endangered lives

After a question about who the 21 perpetrators were, Martin clarified that most of them were students or former students. When asked about whether the investigation will dive deeper into the fraternity activity itself and other people who may have known what was going on, he said he could not provide a direct answer at this time.

Further statements were given by DEA agent Matt O’Brien and Orange County Sheriff Charles Blackwood, mostly reiterating that they are pursuing this investigation to protect the health of the community and reputation of the universities.

What Comes Next — Could Other Students Face Charges?

As the investigation is still underway, it is absolutely possible for more people to face federal charges. These charges are no joke, carrying mandatory minimums of 5 to 10 years that can go up to life term imprisonments based on a variety of factors such as criminal history, drug quantities, and degree of cooperation with the government.

While U.S Attorney Martin and the DEA did not provide further details on who could get roped into the investigation, their statements so far leave a lot open. While they are pursuing charges against individuals, the main message they seemed to be getting at was targeting an “institutional problem”, which may mean taking a deep dive into University activity surrounding fraternities and uncovering a lot of criminal activity. While certainly not every member of a fraternity or participant in Greek life events is guilty of a crime, this investigation could mean that many students will face interrogation by law enforcement that they are not prepared for.

As criminal defense attorneys, we at Tarlton | Polk law know just how intimidating the federal government can be. We also know that youth and students tend to make all the common mistakes when interacting with law enforcement, including speaking to them without an attorney. That is why we strongly recommend that if you are being investigated for drug crimes or asked to provide a testimony to law enforcement, you hire an experienced lawyer first. Even if you know you are completely innocent, they can use anything they say against you, putting your future at great risk when you have done nothing wrong.

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