Drug Trafficking Charges

Drug trafficking charges are the most serious drug crime charges you can face, with potential for huge fines, lengthy imprisonments, and lifelong felony charges. Typically, drug trafficking refers to the illegal cultivation, distribution, and sale of controlled substances on a large organized scale, but all these factors are not necessarily required to charge you with drug trafficking. In fact, the state of North Carolina has some of the toughest laws on drug trafficking, where just the possession of controlled substance more than a certain quantity can lead to a drug trafficking conviction. Additionally, drug trafficking cases are the most likely drug crimes to attract a federal case, which means you can face additional sentencing in both state and federal court. In both federal and North Carolina court, you can be charged the same level of penalties for conspiracy or attempt to commit trafficking as you would for committing the act.

If you are facing drug trafficking charges, it is essential to hire a lawyer who is skilled at tackling these charges in state and federal court, as well as all additional related charges you may face. Brad Polk and Raymond Tarlton started off as prosecuting attorneys, and now they use that knowledge to represent individuals charged with drug offenses. In many matters, they have been able to get a dismissal, acquittal, or reduction in the charges.

confiscated substances from drug trafficking bust

North Carolina Drug Trafficking Penalties

In North Carolina all drug trafficking charges are felonies, though the seriousness of the felony level depends on the type of drug and quantity in possession. A key element to note about drug trafficking charges in North Carolina is that a conviction does not require proof that you tried to traffic the drugs. Simply possessing drugs more than a certain quantity is enough to convict you. Furthermore, conspiracy or intent to traffic drugs carries the same penalties as actually committing the crimes. Also, unlike lesser drug crimes, drug trafficking penalties in North Carolina are based on specific drugs or types of drugs, such as LSD or Heroin, rather than on their broader drug schedule. This does mean that the trafficking laws cover many, but not all, controlled substances.

The penalties for drug trafficking in North Carolina, as outlined in N.C.G.S § 5-90-95(h), are as follows:

Any person who sells, manufactures, delivers or possesses marijuana in excess of 10 pounds (lb) will be charged with the felony of "trafficking in marijuana". Felony level is determined as follows:

  • Between 10lb and 50lb: Class H felony and a fine of at least $5000.
  • Between 50lb and 2,000lb: Class G felony and a fine of at least $25,000.
  • Between 2,000lb and 10,000lb: Class F felony and a fine of at least $50,000.
  • 10,000lb or more: Class D felony and a fine not less than $200,000.

Any person who sells, manufactures, delivers or possesses synthetic cannabinoids in excess of 50 dosage units (3 grams each) will be charged with the felony of "trafficking in synthetic cannabinoids". Felony level is determined as follows:

  • Between 50 and 250 units: Class H felony and a fine of at least $5000.
  • Between 250 and 1,250 units: Class G felony and a fine of at least $25,000.
  • Between 1,250 and 3,750 units: Class F felony and a fine of at least $50,000.
  • 3,750 units or more: Class D felony and a fine not less than $200,000.

Any person who sells, manufactures, delivers or possesses methaqualone in excess of 1000 dosage units will be charged with the felony of "trafficking in methaqualone". Felony level is determined as follows:

  • Between 1,000 and 5,000 units: Class G felony and a fine of at least $25,000.
  • Between 5,000 and 10,000 units: Class F felony and a fine of at least $50,000.
  • 10,000 units or more: Class D felony and a fine not less than $200,000.

Any person who sells, manufactures, delivers or possesses cocaine or its derivatives in excess of 28 grams will be charged with the felony of "trafficking in cocaine". Felony level is determined as follows:

  • Between 28 and 200 grams: Class G felony and a fine of at least $50,000.
  • Between 200 and 400 grams: Class F felony and a fine of at least $100,000.
  • 400 grams or more: Class D felony and a fine not less than $250,000.

Any person who sells, manufactures, delivers or possesses methamphetamine or any mixture containing it in excess of 28 grams will be charged with the felony of "trafficking in methamphetamine". Felony level is determined as follows:

  • Between 28 and 200 grams: Class F felony and a fine of at least $50,000.
  • Between 200 and 400 grams: Class E felony and a fine of at least $100,000.
  • 400 grams or more: Class C felony and a fine not less than $250,000.

Any person who sells, manufactures, delivers or possesses amphetamine or any mixture containing it  in excess of 28 grams will be charged with the felony of "trafficking in amphetamine". Felony level is determined as follows:

  • Between 28 and 200 grams: Class H felony and a fine of at least $5,000.
  • Between 200 and 400 grams: Class G felony and a fine of at least $25,000.
  • 400 grams or more: Class E felony and a fine not less than $100,000.

Any person who sells, manufactures, delivers or possesses cathinone or any mixture containing it in excess of 28 grams will be charged with the felony of "trafficking in cathinone". Felony level is determined as follows:

  • Between 28 and 200 grams: Class F felony and a fine of at least $50,000.
  • Between 200 and 400 grams: Class E felony and a fine of at least $100,000.
  • 400 grams or more: Class C felony and a fine not less than $250,000.

Any person who sells, manufactures, delivers or possesses heroin or any other* opiate, opioid or opium and their derivatives in excess of 4 grams will be charged with the felony of "trafficking in opium, opiate, opioid, or heroin". Felony level is determined as follows:

  • Between 4 and 14 grams: Class F felony and a fine of at least $50,000.
  • Between 14 and 28 grams: Class E felony and a fine of at least $100,000.
  • 28 grams or more: Class C felony and a fine not less than $500,000.

*Narcotics that are an exception to the above are apomorphine, nalbuphine, analoxone and naltrexone.

Any person who sells, manufactures, delivers or possesses LSD or any mixture containing it in excess of 100 dosage units will be charged with the felony of "trafficking in LSD". Felony level is determined as follows:

  • Between 100 and 500 units: Class G felony and a fine of at least $25,000.
  • Between 500 and 1,000 units: Class F felony and a fine of at least $50,000.
  • 1000 units or more: Class D felony and a fine not less than $200,000.

Any person who sells, manufactures, delivers or possesses MDMA or MDA or any derivatives of it in excess of 100 dosage units or 28 grams will be charged with the felony of "trafficking in LSD". Felony level is determined as follows:

  • Between 100 and 500 units, or between 28 and 200 grams: Class G felony and a fine of at least $25,000.
  • Between 500 and 1,000 units, or between 200 and 400 grams: Class F felony and a fine of at least $50,000.
  • 1000 units or more, or 400 grams or more: Class D felony and a fine not less than $250,000.

Though the above table outlines penalties for possession, there are circumstances that can bring about additional charges and increases to penalties, as well as strategies you can take to reduce charges with the help of an experienced attorney.

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Substantial Assistance

It may be possible to avoid incarceration on a drug trafficking conviction by providing “substantial assistance” to authorities in helping to apprehend others. This assistance will typically help in the identification, arrest or conviction of any accomplices, accessories, co-conspirators, or leaders. This assistance can also include help in the prosecution of other cases.

The judge may deviate from the mandatory minimum imprisonment term if he or she is satisfied with the assistance. Furthermore, in some cases, the judge can even order probation. However, this determination that substantial assistance was provided is up to the discretion of the trial court. Additionally, even if the court finds substantial assistance, the decision to reduce the defendant’s sentence is still the court’s decision. Essentially, the court can still decide to impose the full sentence even if it finds that you offered substantial assistance.

Continuing Criminal Enterprise (CCE) and Asset Forfeiture

Continuing criminal enterprise (CCE) statutes exist to leverage additional penalties to those involved in long-term organized crime conspiracies. The statute, laid out in G.S § 14-7.20 (applied to drug crimes in G.S § 90-95.1), says that a person is guilty of drug trafficking CCE when he or she is guilty of all the following:

  • Commits a drug felony,
  • That is part of a continuing series of drug violations,
  • Undertaken with five or more other people,
  • Over whom the defendant in in a position of authority or management (organizer, supervisor, etc.), and
  • The defendant obtains substantial income or resources from continuing violations.

Essentially, if you were involved in an illegal drug trafficking business in a position of authority where you made substantial income from continuing drug violations, you can face charges for drug trafficking CCE. The continuing series of drug violations does not necessarily mean prior convictions, as evidence of long-term involvement in drug trafficking is sufficient. For drug trafficking crimes, this means a punishment of at least a Class C felony, in addition to criminal asset forfeiture of any profits, property or other assets that afforded the defendant influence over the enterprise.

Generally, it is rare for prosecution to go after a CCE charge in North Carolina, primarily because it has a very high bar of proof for a conviction with little reward, especially as the assets and profits involved are difficult to track down. Nonetheless, the statute does exist and can be used against you, which is why quickly hiring an experienced attorney is the best way to deter prosecution from filing these charges or getting them dismissed if they have been filed. 

Additional Penalties for Drug Trafficking

Some circumstances, such as the location the crime was committed or the kind of people you involved in the crime can increase the penalties, including:

  • Selling or Delivering to Minors and Pregnant Woman: Any person 18 years old or older who sells or delivers a controlled substance to a person under 16 years but over 13 years old or a pregnant female is guilty of a class D felony if convicted. If the sale or delivery was made to someone 13 years old or younger, they will be guilty of a class C felony if convicted. Mistaking the person’s age or pregnancy is not a valid defense.
  • Drug Operations on or Near School or Childcare Facilities and Public Parks: Any person 21 years old or older who commits a drug trafficking offense on property used for a child care center, elementary school, secondary school or public park, or within 1,000 feet of any of these properties, will be guilty of a class E felony if convicted.
  • Employing Minors in Drug Crimes: Any person over 18 who hires or intentionally uses a minor in drug trafficking is guilty of a felony if convicted. These offenses largely result in conviction of a higher felony class than what the minor violated. The number of increases in felony classes depends on whether the minor was over or under 13 years old and if the defendant was over or under 21 years old.
  • Promoting Drug Sales by Minors: While not as serious as employing or intentionally using minors to create or sell drugs, enticing, supervising, encouraging or otherwise facilitating a minor in committing these crimes is punished by a class D felony if convicted.

Federal Drug Trafficking Penalties

Federal drug trafficking charges, like in North Carolina, are very serious crimes with harsh penalties that constitute both prison sentences are heavy fines. Also like in North Carolina, the severity of penalties are categorized based on quantities of certain drugs, which is then combined with other factors such as prior convictions for drug offenses, whether drug distribution involved serious injury or death of a drug user, among other factors. The key difference between drug trafficking in federal law and North Carolina law is that under federal statute (21 U.S.C § 841), it is not enough to convict you of drug trafficking by simply being in possession of a large quantity of drugs. Federal prosecutors must prove that you were guilty of knowingly or intentionally:

  • Manufacturing, distributing, or dispensing a controlled substance; or
  • Possessed with the intent to manufacture, distribute, or dispense a controlled substance.

Federal penalties for drug trafficking, addressed under 21 U.S.C § 841. The structure of penalties is based around mandatory minimums for trafficking specific drugs at varying quantities. These minimums increase based on drug quantity thresholds, prior convictions, and whether somebody had a drug overdose resulting in serious injury or death from drugs sold to them. These penalties are grouped into 5-year mandatory minimum sentencing and 10-year sentencing, as shown below:

Drug 5-Year Mandatory Minimum Quantity 10-Year Mandatory Minimum Quantity
foot1 foot2 foot3
Heroin 100 grams 1 kilogram
Crack Cocaine 28 grams 280 grams
Powder Cocaine 500 grams 5 kilograms
LSD 1 gram 10 grams
PCP 10 grams (pure) / 100 grams (mixture) 100 grams (pure) / 1 kilogram (mixture)
Fentanyl 40 grams (mixture) / 10 grams (mixture with analogue) 400 grams (mixture) / 100 grams (mixture with analogue)
Marijuana 100 plants or 100 kilograms 1000 plants or 1000 kilograms
Methamphetamine 5 grams (pure) / 50 grams (mixture) 50 grams (pure) / 500 grams (mixture)

The above penalties for both mandatory minimum categories increase for prior convictions and serious injuries or death of drug users as follows:

5-year Mandatory Minimums Increase When:

  • One Prior Felony Drug Offense: doubles to 10 years
  • If Death or Serious Injury Results: 20 years for first offense
  • If Death Results and the Offender has 1 Prior Felony Drug Offense: Life sentence

10-year Mandatory Minimums Increase When:

  • One Prior Felony Drug Offense: doubles to 20 years
  • If Death or Serious Injury Results: 20 years for first offense
  • If Death Results and the Offender has 1 Prior Felony Drug Offense: Life sentence
  • Two or More Prior Felony Drug Offenses: Life sentence

Additional Circumstances Leading to Penalties

Like in North Carolina law, there are additional circumstances that can increase the sentencing, including committing drug manufacturing and distribution crimes:

Most of these additional crimes can result in doubling the maximum punishment for a first-offense, and even tripling the punishment for repeat offenders.

Understanding Concurrent Jurisdiction in Drug Crimes

The federal government has concurrent jurisdiction with all states, which means you can be prosecuted in both federal and state court for the same drug offense. This does not violate the double jeopardy clause in the fifth amendment of the federal constitution, which states that you cannot be prosecuted twice for the same crime by the same sovereign entity. This is because state and federal governments are essentially separate government entities. However, the federal court has the doctrine of preemption, meaning that federal law can impede state law in circumstances where they conflict.  

While an offense has potential to be tried in both courts, this does not mean that every state drug offense will reach the federal government, or that a federal charge will also result in state charges. Typically, the federal government and state governments have different priorities for drug enforcement, such as the federal government often looking for bigger cases involving interstate or multi-state operations. However, you should be aware that there still are cases where people face both state and federal prosecution for simple possession offenses. Whether facing state, federal or both charges, it is critical that you contact an attorney skilled at tackling all kinds of drug charges at both a state and federal level. The attorneys at Tarlton Polk have handled many drug cases in state and federal court, so we know how to navigate these complex cases with prowess.

Defending Drug Trafficking Charges

As there are many factors involved in drug trafficking crimes, they need to be approached carefully by your attorney to tackle the weak aspects of the prosecution’s case without overreaching and undermining the credibility of the defense. While every case is different, some areas a skilled lawyer can target are:

Challenging Intent to Distribute or Manufacture

In federal cases where you are being charged for simply having a large quantity of drugs, but no clear evidence of actually trafficking the drugs, the government does need to prove that you:

  1. Were in possession of a controlled substance
  2. Knew that the substance in your possession was a controlled substance
  3. Had the intention to distribute the substance or use it in the manufacturing of drugs.

The third point is the most challenging for the prosecution to prove, but only if you have the representation of a skilled lawyer who can challenge their claims and maintain a solid defense.

Unfortunately, in North Carolina state court, the prosecution does not need to prove intent to distribute if you were in possession of drugs exceeding the quantities outlined in the statute. A skilled North Carolina attorney can still use many other effective strategies to reduce or drop these drug trafficking charges.

Drug Conspiracy Defense

In both North Carolina and federal court, conspiring to commit drug crimes is charged with the same penalties as committing the crime. While this fact can be very frightening for people facing these charges, they are much harder for prosecution to prove when up against an experienced attorney. The prosecution will have to prove that all the following were true:

  1. An agreement to possess the illegal drug with intent to distribute existed between two or more people.
  2. The defendant knew of the conspiracy.
  3. The defendant knowingly and voluntarily joined the conspiracy.

While this is a high bar for proof, unfortunately proof of conspiracy may be shown by circumstantial evidence; direct proof is not needed. Essentially, once a conspiracy is established, the prosecution only needs to create a slight link between the defendant and the conspiracy to argue for conviction. For example, the defendant does not need to know his co-conspirator or the conspiracy details and may even be sentenced despite having played only a minor part in the general conspiracy. Granted, some loose connections do not establish proof of conspiracy, such as simply engaging in a buy-sell transaction with a person involved in the conspiracy.

Drug Dogs and Unconstitutional Searches

Using drug dogs during vehicle checkpoints and stops has become a common method used in both federal and state investigations. It is important to note that the use of a drug dog itself is not a “search” protected under the Fourth Amendment. When a drug dog detects the presence of narcotics, this fact alone constitutes probable cause to search the vehicle or other property to which the dog alerted. If drugs are found, this constitutes probable cause to arrest whoever possesses them. However, in the absence of additional suspicion of a separate crime, i.e. the police officer smelling marijuana, a traffic stop may not be extended to perform a drug dog sniff.

If you have been charged with a drug crime involving the use of a drug dog there are several avenues to attack the constitutionality of the search. In most cases, if you can show the use of the drug dog was unconstitutional the entire charge will be dismissed.

Our firm has handled dozens of cases involving drug dogs and have used and can help obtain K-9 experts to assist in defeating the Government’s case against you.

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It is important to recognize that not all these approaches are applicable to every case, and misuse of any of the above defenses could harm the credibility of the defense. Our lawyers at Tarlton Polk are skilled at devising the most effective defense strategy and know how to stick to it credibly while still readily adapting to changes as the case develops. If you or a loved one has been arrested for drug trafficking, you need to begin building your defense immediately, please call us today.

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