The Mn Criminal Defense, Personal Injury & Family Law Blog
What is Drug Trafficking Definition and Defense in MN?
May 24, 2021
In the seemingly endless War on Drugs, arrests are basically the only measuring stick of victory. High profile drug trafficking arrests are almost sure to attract attention. Arrests often involve large, multi-agency investigations, especially in certain situations. If you’re wondering what is drug trafficking and definition and defense, the answer can get complicated.
Officers invest a lot in drug trafficking cases, so there’s a great deal of pressure on prosecutors when these cases go to court. No lawyer wants to be the guy who let a “drug dealer” go “free.” Usually, federal and state prosecutors can levy drug trafficking charges when they believe that controlled substances have been sold, imported, or moved around. In most cases, these charges involve drugs such as heroin, marijuana, cocaine, and methamphetamine. Between 2011 and 2015, heroin trafficking charges increased almost 50 percent.
What is a Drug Trafficking Charge?
A drug trafficking charge can also extend to the unlawful distribution of prescription drugs, such as sleeping pills, painkillers, or products containing hydrocodone, oxycodone, and pharmaceutical opiates. Even if no money changes hands, authorities can press drug trafficking charges. Legally, giving leftover medicine to a friend is as bad as selling it on the street.
Consequences of a Drug Trafficking Charge in Minnesota
Any Minnesota drug crime attorney will tell you that the consequences for drug charges are extremely severe. The state laws here oversee penalties in keeping with the type and quantity of drugs involved, area of distribution, and whether or not children were targeted. Sentences for drug trafficking typically range between three and five years to life imprisonment, but can be considerably higher when large quantities are involved. In extreme cases, where large amounts of drugs are involved, the accused can be charged with a first-degree felony, which can result in a prison sentence of up to 40 years.
An experienced Minnesota drug crime attorney can effectively use one or more defenses to successfully resolve these charges. These charges could hit almost anyone. A drug trafficking charge can be brought against you if you have been accused of manufacturing or distributing an illegal controlled substance, or if you have been found possessing a large quantity of the substance that exceeds the estimated quantity for personal use.
Minnesota Criminal Defense and Jail Release
Prompt jail release is usually the first step toward a successful outcome in a drug trafficking case. That outcome could be a not guilty verdict at trial, a complete dismissal of charges, or a plea to a lesser-included offense, such as drug possession. If jurors learn that the defendant is in jail, most of them assume s/he did something wrong.
The first step of any process is often a very difficult one. Jail release in a drug trafficking case is a good example. Generally, county sheriffs either do not set bail in these cases or set amounts so high that defendants cannot possibly afford them.
At the arraignment, which usually happens about three days after the arrest, a Minnesota drug crime attorney can petition for a bail reduction. Some factors judges consider include:
Severity of the offense,
Defendant’s criminal record,
Amount of evidence against the defendant,
Defendant’s links with the community,
Any ongoing threat to victims or witnesses, and
Defendant’s ability to pay bail.
These factors are much more comprehensive than initial bail determination factors. Usually, county sheriffs only consider the first two bullet points. So, there’s a very good chance that the defendant can get out of jail.
Pretrial release isn’t just important for personal reasons. There are legal reasons as well. Incarceration increases stress hormone levels, and exposure to these hormones causes a brain injury. So, people who are behind bars cannot always think clearly. They are often tempted to accept unfavorable plea bargain agreements so they can “get it over with.”
Possible Defenses in a Drug Trafficking Prosecution
Most criminal cases have both procedural and substantive defenses. Procedural defenses usually involve law enforcement or prosecutor mistakes. Substantive defenses essentially involve a lack of evidence. Drug trafficking cases have both kinds of defenses.
Illegal Search and Seizure
Law enforcement authorities need to have probable cause before searching through your personal property to check for possession of illegal drugs. If they did not have a valid warrant or probable cause, it means they violated your Constitutional rights, in which case, your charges may be reduced or dismissed altogether.
The probable cause in a search warrant almost always involves a Confidential Informant’s testimony. CIs usualyl do not come forward out of the goodness of their hearts. They almost always receive money or leniency. In most cases, the payment is quite high, especially in large drug trafficking investigations.
SInce many people will say virtually anything for love or money, CI testimony is presumptively unreliable, unless the CI has a positive track record or there is some corroborating proof.
WHen these cases go to court, prosecutors cannot argue backwards. They cannot assert that since officers found what they were looking for, the CI’s testimony must have been accurate. Probable cause in a search warrant stands or falls based on the information which was available at the time.
Other drug trafficking arrests involve search warrant exceptions, like consent and plain view. These exceptions are a little more common in possession cases.
Most people are at least somewhat familiar with the Miranda rights (you have the right to remain silent, etc.). But many people don’t realize how broad these rights are or how quickly they kick in.
The Fifth Amendment’s right to remain silent doesn’t just give defendants the right to keep their mouths closed. Defendants also have the right to stay still. They need not perform field sobriety tests, pose for pictures, or appear in lineups.
Peace officers are usually desperate to close cases before the defendant lawyers up. So, people who assert their Fifth Amendment rights face consequences. For example, if suspected drug traffickers do not fully cooperate with police, officers almost always arrest them. But if officers bring you to the station, an arrest is pretty much inevitable anyway.
Despite the intense pressure officers put on defendants to talk, and despite the “promises” officers make, it’s usually best to assert your Fifth Amendment rights in these situations. The state has more than enough ways to obtain a guilty verdict. Prosecutor’s don’t need your help.
Now, let’s talk about timing. Legally, officers must administer the Miranda warnings when custodial interrogation begins. “Custody” means the suspect does not feel free to leave. Most people don’t feel free to leave as soon as they see flashing lights behind them. “Interrogation” means more than asking questions related to the drug trafficking investigation. Clever officers know how to extract damaging information from suspects in very subtle ways.
If officers Mirandize the defendant too late, any evidence they obtain is fruit from a poisonous tree and therefore inadmissible in court.
Witness Identification Issues
As mentioned, CIs often claim that Jerry is a drug dealer. Also as mentioned, CIs have a motivation to lie. So, prosecutors often look for corroborating proof in the form of an eyewitness who saw something. Simply seeing Jerry in the neighborhood at the time of the alleged drug transaction could be enough.
Eyewitness testimony is very persuasive. Something almost mystical occurs when a witness takes the stand, points to the defendant, and says “That’s the man.”
Eyewitness testimony is also scientifically unreliable. Memory does not fade slowly and evenly over time. Most people almost immediately forget pretty much everything they see and hear. Cross racial identification is often an issue as well. If a white person sees then black men in a lineup who are all about the same age, weight, and height, the people in the lineup will all look alike. That’s not racial prejudice. That’s biology.
Sometimes, the witness is a camera instead of a person. Cameras usually don’t have memory or other issues. But there could be authentication issues.
Today’s cameras record very sharp images, and they also need a lot of maintenance. These maintenance records are often unavailable. Very few people keep repair receipts and other such documents. Additionally, a camera operator or other such person must appear in court and authenticate the recording. Such witnesses are often unavailable, especially since the trial might be a year or more after the incident.
The Lack of Intent
Admittedly, this defense doesn’t come up very often. Legally, prosecutors can use evidence to establish intent. Furthermore, “intentional” usually means “non-accidental.” People accidentally possess drugs rather frequently, mostly because of a lack of knowledge, which is examined below. But pretty much no one “accidentally” trafficks controlled substances.
Occasionally, however, prosecutors use shaky circumstantial evidence to upgrade possession charges to distribution charges. Such evidence includes:
Quantity of drugs.
In the post-arrest press conference, all this evidence is laid out for the cameras as if officers found it in the same place. But in the real world, a wad of bills in the living room might have little or nothing to do with drugs in the garage.
The Lack of Knowledge
Possession includes a knowledge element. Assume Sarah is in the passenger seat when officers find drugs in the glovebox. These charges might not hold up in court, unless prosecutors can prove that Sarah knew the drugs were there. Mere proximity isn’t enough.
Things get complicated if Sarah smelled something fishy. Let’s look at a few scenarios. First, assume the glove box was locked. Sarah might think that was a bit suspicious, especially if she’s the paranoid type. But prosecutors probably couldn’t establish knowledge.
Now, assume the driver told Sarah not to look in the glove compartment. If that happened, Sarah cannot play dumb. She should have known that there was something illegal in the glovebox.
The same analysis applies in drug mule cases. If Sarah carries a gift-wrapped package which contains drugs, trafficking charges probably wouldn’t hold up in court. But no one “accidentally” swallows tiny balloons filled with illegal drugs.
Challenging Proof of Substance in Minnesota
This defense frequently applies in marijuana trafficking cases. Hemp is legal in Minnesota, and marijuana is illegal, except for limited medicinal purposes. These two substances have the same physical properties. They look alike and smell alike. Only a THC chemical content test can distinguish them.
Such tests are unavailable in many smaller Minnesota counties. Furthermore, even if the test is available, it’s quite expensive. Many prosecutors decide that it’s too costly.
Without this test, it’s usually impossible to prove drug trafficking charges, at least beyond a reasonable doubt. That’s especially true if the defendant only had a few pounds of marijuana/hemp. A higher amount is harder for a Minnesota drug crime lawyer to explain.
On a related note, officers always use “field tests” which always “confirm” that the substance is illegal. But these unscientific test results don’t always hold up in court. In 2019, an officer arrested Georgia State’s quarterback for trafficking cocaine. Later tests confirmed that the substance was bird poop. Not surprisingly, the officer resigned shortly thereafter.
Usually, a Minnesota drug crime attorney partners with an independent lab that conducts independent tests.
Police Misconduct Minnesota
The Saluda County Sheriff’s deputy who made that arrest had a rather checkered past. For example, two years previously, he left another department after being accused of misconduct with a woman who was involved in a domestic dispute. We probably don’t want to know the details about that situation.
This scenario is hardly unique. We all have skeletons in the closet. If a Minnesota drug crime lawyer can successfully undermine the officer’s credibility, the state’s case could suffer mightily. Respect for police officers reached an all-time low in 2020. Many jurors are ready to believe the worst about police officers, and ready to believe that law enforcement railroaded the defendant.
Duress in Minnesota
Pretty much all actions, whether they are good or bad, involve at least a little duress. Parents pressure their kids into eating their vegetables and drug dealers pressure individuals into becoming drug traffickers.
At some point, a line is crossed. If the defendant can prove that someone made a specific, credible threat which induced him/her into the conduct, the duress defense might hold water.
Duress is an affirmative defense. Defendants must admit they trafficked drugs and successfully argue that their behavior was not illegal. So, duress is also an all-or-nothing defense, at least in many cases. If defendants admit they broke the law, it’s very difficult to otherwise resolve the charges successfully.
Entrapment in Minnesota
Here’s another affirmative defense. Like duress, entrapment is difficult to prove. The defendant must establish that:
The officer induced her/him to commit the crime, and
S/he had no predisposition toward this kind of criminal activity.
Online sex trafficking sting operations are a good example of how this defense works. Officer Smith poses as an underage girl and, armed with some lurid photos, enters a chat room. The officer strikes up a conversation with a defendant and offers to meet. During the course of this conversation, Officer Smith says “don’t you love me” or something like that in order to seal the deal. Our potential pervert shows up at the designated place, and that’s that.
Clearly, Officer Smith induced the defendant to commit the crime. But if the defendant was in a sex chat room, the defendant clearly had some propensity to commit the crime. His reluctance to meet, if any, isn’t relevant. Prosecutors only need to show a tiny bit of predisposition. The outcome might be different if the “girl” was in a Facebook or other relatively benign chat room.
In the drug trafficking context, users often become dealers after a boss promises them money or other benefits. Even if the trafficking was the boss’s idea, the user had some predisposition toward drug trafficking.
Lack of Evidence in Minnesota
The burden of proof in a criminal case is beyond a reasonable doubt. That’s the highest burden of proof in American law. Therefore, many people are morally guilty but not legally guilty. They did it, but the state cannot prove they did it.
This defense combines procedural and substantive elements. If a Minnesota drug crime lawyer can exclude evidence, it’s harder for the state to establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Alternatively, if an attorney undermines the state’s evidence, perhaps by attacking the credibility of a witness or pointing out a gap in the chain of custody, jurors might not be thoroughly convinced that the defendant is guilty.
Consult Our Drug Crime Lawyer in Minnesota for a Positive Outcome
Call us for a free consultation at (855) 976-2444 today or contact us online. At Carlson & Jones, P.A., wel help you explore every legal option available and applicable to your case, preserve your rights, and get you the just outcome you deserve.