Articles Posted in Drug Trafficking

Florida drug crime cases involving a defendant with mental and emotional conditions can raise a number of complicated legal issues. In some cases, a judge will hold a competency hearing to determine whether the person is mentally capable to stand trial. A recent decision out of Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeal offers some insight into when a judge must hold a competency hearing.

colorful pillsA defendant was arrested and charged with various crimes related to his alleged involvement in a prescription drug trafficking ring. He eventually agreed to plead guilty to eight criminal offenses. In a hearing, however, he told the judge that he was under the influence of various prescription drugs to treat mental issues after being involved in some sort of accident. He told the judge that he often had trouble concentrating, but he said he was able to understand everything the judge and his lawyer were telling him. The judge eventually sentenced him to 25 years beyond bars.

The defendant’s doctor testified at the sentencing hearing that the defendant suffered from neurological problems that left him “simple” and “confused.” The doctor said he wasn’t capable of operating a multimillion dollar criminal enterprise like the prescription drug ring in which he was accused of being involved. Investigators, however, said the defendant was clear about the facts of the alleged crimes in several hours of police interviews. His ex-wife also said the defendant stopped going to doctor visits and continued to run the criminal operation, including by considering expanding it to Puerto Rico. As a result, the judge denied his request to reduce his sentence.

Drug trafficking cases are treated very seriously in Florida and often come with the possibility of significant prison time and fines. That includes mandatory minimum sentences that force judges to send offenders to prison for a certain amount of time. The punishments in drug cases vary, however, based on the type and quantity of the drug involved.

colorful pillsThe Florida legislature occasionally updates criminal laws to reflect a better understanding of the dangers posed by different drugs. In 2014, for example, lawmakers updated criminal laws to treat two prescription painkillers – hydrocodone and hydromorphone – differently for drug trafficking purposes. As a recent decision out of the state’s First District Court of Appeals makes clear, those updates don’t apply to someone convicted before the law changed.

A defendant was charged with trafficking in hydrocodone in 2012. The prescription drug is a powerful painkiller that’s addictive and has been the source of a significant number of overdoses. The defendant was allegedly holding between 14 and 28 grams of the drug at the time. He was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

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State and federal criminal laws often overlap and intertwine, particularly when it comes to drugs and guns. Law enforcement of every stripe takes these cases very seriously, but federal laws tend to be significantly harsher. In a recent Central Florida gun crime case, a federal district court upheld the U.S. government’s right under the Constitution to impose those penalties, as long as the feds can prove some very minimal connection to interstate commerce.

Gun and MoneyThe defendant was arrested and charged with possession of a firearm by a convicted felon, a federal crime. He was eventually sentenced to five years in jail, a sentence that was increased because he had previously been convicted of drug trafficking. He later appealed the sentence, arguing that the feds didn’t have the authority to charge him under the circumstances. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit disagreed.

The Court explained that the federal law banning felons from having guns stems from the federal government’s power under the U.S. Constitution’s Commerce Clause. That clause directly authorizes the feds “to regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes.” It has been read broadly to give the government wide enforcement authority over anything that has some connection to commerce between states.

HandcuffsIn what is described as an emerging trend by the Tampa Bay Times, lawmakers are starting to either repeal mandatory minimum sentences or pass “safety valve” laws. The latter provides judges with more discretion in imposing a variety of punishments in minor drug cases, if certain conditions are met. These new laws could change the way that courts deal with Florida drug crimes, or at least change the length of jail time imposed at sentencing.

The proposed law is a Senate bill brought forth by a pair of Florida legislators. SB 694 permits a court to sentence a drug offender to a sentence less than a mandatory minimum sentence if the following conditions are met:  (i) the person did not engage in a criminal enterprise as defined in Florida Statutes Section 893.20(1) (a continuing criminal enterprise); (ii) the person did not use or threaten violence or use a weapon during the commission of the crime; and (iii) the person did not cause a death or serious bodily injury.

The Florida House of Representatives version is very similar to the one proposed in the Senate but with a few key differences. The court is required to at least impose a sentence of imprisonment that is “no less than one-third of the sentence prescribed” by the mandatory minimum sentencing statute. Separately, the drug offender cannot have certain prior convictions, including a crime of violence as defined in Florida Statutes Section 784.046(1)(a).

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The punishments for Florida drug crimes are often harsh. The legislature has not only criminalized the possession of illegal drugs but also has criminalized a plan, or conspiracy, to sell illegal drugs. As shown in a recent Tampa drug crime case, law enforcement attempted to convict a defendant for conspiracy to deliver cannabis, even though there was likely never any intent to actually make a drug sale.

Cannabis
Three friends from the Tampa area made arrangements to meet the defendants to acquire cannabis. One of the passengers called the co-defendant multiple times to find out where to meet. When they arrived at the designated meeting spot, there was no one to meet them. After five or six minutes, the passenger called again. The conversation was suspicious, and the passengers continued to wait in the car. The defendants walked up to the vehicle, where one of the passengers held cash out of the door. The defendant approached the vehicle with a square piece of paper to distract one of the passengers. Instantaneously, the co-defendant pulled a gun from his waistband. The driver sped away but only made it a few feet before the co-defendant fired and shot one of the passengers in the face, causing serious permanent injuries. Florida’s Second District Court of Appeals affirmed the defendant’s aggravated battery conviction but overturned his conspiracy to deliver cannabis conviction.

Although the co-defendant physically committed the battery offense, Florida law criminalizes accomplices to a battery. The State is required to prove that the defendant intended for the battery to occur and did some act or said some words that assisted or furthered the battery.

Electronic Scale
It’s well-established that the quantity of a controlled substance affects the sentencing of a person accused of a Florida drug crime. For instance, Florida Statute Section 893.135(1)(f) establishes tiers of increasingly severe minimum sentences and fines for meth trafficking, based on the quantity of meth discovered. In a recent Florida court decision, the defendant was convicted under the felony meth trafficking statute; however, on appeal, the court was asked to consider whether a liquid by-product created in the manufacture of meth should be included in the total calculation of the quantity of meth manufactured by the defendant.

Four deputies with the Clay County Sheriff’s Office arrested the defendant after a shootout, which killed one of the deputies. In a search of the residence, the deputies found instruments indicative of a meth lab. The collected items included items with a total weight of approximately one gram of meth at various stages of the production process, in addition to a vase containing 26.2 grams of a liquid by-product left over from the manufacturing process. The liquid by-product was toxic, but it only contained a trace amount of meth (less than 1%). There was testimony at trial that the liquid could be reused to manufacture additional meth. Based on the weight of the meth, plus the liquid by-product, the defendant was convicted under the felony meth trafficking statute, along with other crimes. Specifically, the meth trafficking statute provides that quantities of meth of 14 grams or more, but less than 28 grams, carry with them a minimum sentence of three years and a fine of $50,000.

On appeal, the defendant argued that the 26.2 grams of liquid by-product should not have been included in the total weight of the meth. The defendant conceded that the mixture contained trace amounts of meth, but it was not a consumable or marketable mixture. The defendant relied on an argument discussed in a U.S. Supreme Court decision, Chapman v. United States, 500 U.S. 453 (1991). The defendant argued that the weight of any unmarketable portion of a mixture should be excluded from the weight of the controlled substance. However, the Supreme Court did not adopt the defendant’s position in Chapman. Instead, the Court ultimately adopted the “market-oriented” approach, under which the total quantity of what is distributed, rather than the amount of the pure drug involved, is used to determine the length of the sentence.