The opioid epidemic is damaging lives across the country, with 27 million Americans stating that they have misused illegal drugs or opioid-based prescription pain killers in 2016. States have been cracking down on physicians who over-prescribe opioids, but this had led to the rise of fentanyl usage. This drug is 25 to 50 times more potent than heroin, and less expensive than either heroin or cocaine, so it is often mixed with these drugs to increase the seller’s profits. Unfortunately, many people are unaware that the substance they are ingesting contains fentanyl, and are more like to overdose.  

Federal Government Shifts Stance on Minimum Mandatory Sentencing

In reaction this situation, the US Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently recalled the “Holder Memo” that eased the application of minimum mandatory sentences in federal courts. Holder’s goal was to reduce the number of low-level users and sellers impacted by these harsh requirements. Under federal law, people who commit specific crimes are subject to established minimum mandatory sentences and judges have no authority to reduce them.

In 2013, Former US Attorney General Eric Holder stated that the minimum mandatory sentences were not effective in addressing the war on drugs, and encouraged federal prosecutors across the country to avoid charging low-level drug offenders with crimes that trigger this punishment. Many states also followed suit, which reduced the number of people in prison and increased the use of rehabilitation options.

Recently, Jeff Sessions reversed this popular position, requiring federal prosecutors to charge individuals with the highest levels of crimes possible, if they have a good faith belief that they can prove the charges. His goal is to reduce the illegal use of opioids as well as deaths resulting from fentanyl.

Impact on Federal Drug Crime Prosecutions

While most small time drug sellers and users are tried in state courts, federal prosecutors can choose to try them in the federal system, since most of the drugs were manufactured elsewhere and carried over state lines, which triggers federal jurisdiction. Federal prosecutors normally have little interest in low-level participants in the drug trade, but these individuals can be caught up in a larger investigation. When these occurs, these defendants face significant time in federal prison under the minimum mandatory sentences. Other impacts of the recent changes by Jeff Sessions include:

Many defendants whose cases have not yet gone to trial have received letters stating that the charges against them will be changed, and that the minimum mandatory sentencing rules will now apply to their cases.

Prosecutors are changing how they are charging even low level sellers. If the person who bought the drug died or was severely injured as a result of the drug, the seller now faces a minimum of 20 years in federal prison.

Given these harsh consequences, it is imperative that individuals who are arrested on drug charges immediately hire qualified legal representation.

The Need for Expert Criminal Defense Representation

There are many factors that go into defending against drug charges in the federal system, and you must have someone who understands these options and can provide you with the best advice and guidance possible. For example, if you are charged with causing the death of someone because of the drugs you sold them, an expert criminal defense attorney may argue:

Although you sold the individual the drugs, the drugs themselves did not cause the death or serious injury; or The individual was taking several drugs, and the person might have purchased them from another seller.

Another complication that inexperienced criminal defense attorneys often fail to take into account, is that if the death or significant harm portion of the case is dismissed in court, or the defendant is found not guilty of these charges, the individual will still face the federal sentencing guidelines for the sale of the drugs and are facing 20 years in a federal prison. In this situation, it is important to remind the judge that the drugs you sold may or may not have caused the death or harm of the individual.

It is also important that you obtain skilled legal representation immediately upon being charged with a drug crime so that you do not make any statements that can be used against you, or used to get evidence regarding cause.

Ben Stechschulte is a board certified expert in criminal trial law who represents clients in both Florida and federal courts. He is also a former prosecutor who understands both sides of the process, and uses this knowledge to the benefit of his clients. Please contact us to learn more or request a free consultation.