Federal Drug Trafficking Offenses

Southern Arizona is, by all accounts, ground zero in the decades- old war on drugs. It remains one of the busiest places in the nation. The daily arraignment calendar at 2:00PM in United States District Court in Tucson can take a seasoned Federal Magistrate several hours to navigate, with many dozens of arrestees packed in the jury boxes and gallery benches, the vast majority chained and hobbled for either drug trafficking, immigration crimes, or lately, a combination of the two.

For those caught in the maw of the Federal Criminal Justice system for drug trafficking, even in relatively unexceptional cases, the penalties are often harsh.

Mandatory Minimum Sentences & the United States Sentencing Guideline

With passage of the Anti-Drug Abuse Acts of 1986 and 1988, Congress introduced mandatory minimum sentences for certain quantities of drugs. Notably, 21 USC § 841(b)(1)(B) provides for a minimum penalty of five years imprisonment for “100 kilograms or more of a mixture or substance containing a detectable amount of marijuana.” The mandatory minimum is also five years for 5 grams of methamphetamine; 100 grams of heroin; and 500 grams of cocaine. See Id.

Moreover, the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 led to the promulgation of the United States Sentencing Guidelines, almost immediately controversial, but which remain in practical effect, to be considered United States District Judges. USSG § 2D1.1 provides a table, in use for decades, that determines presumptively appropriate prison sentence based on quantities of drugs. For example 10 KG or more of marijuana (22.05 Lbs.) is considered a level 15 base offense level, which, unadjusted, specifies a sentence of 18-24 months for a person with no prior criminal history. By contrast, 60 Kg. of marijuana correlates to a guidelines base level of 22, with an unadjusted sentence of 41-51 months for a person with no criminal history. Drugs such as methamphetamine and heroin come with much longer Guideline ranges.

Although the United States Sentencing Guidelines are no longer considered “mandatory” but only advisory, and the core sentencing statute 18 USC § 3553 allows judges to consider a number of factors and provide a “variance” from the Guidelines, the Guidelines still have presumptive force. On occasion they can lead to surprisingly long prison sentences, even for those without prior criminal records.

Michael has particular experience with a wide variety of federal drug trafficking offenses, from backpacking and small load cases, to wiretap matters and larger conspiracies. He has handled related money laundering matters and sizeable forfeitures of real estate, cash, and other assets; and has defended cases involving marijuana, cocaine and methamphetamine, prescription drugs and steroids. Michael has appeared as lead counsel in United States District Courts on such matters in Tucson, Phoenix, and El Paso, Texas, and at the United States Courts of Appeals for the 5th and 9th Circuits.