Criminal Defense Attorneys

In April 2018 the Department of Justice and Drug Enforcement Administration announced a “major takedown of drug traffickers and related drug networks” that “dismantled a major multi-state heroin and fentanyl distribution network.”[1] What was termed “Operation Saigon Sunset,” targeted nearly one-hundred defendants for arrest and executed related search warrants.

Similar press-releases and news articles about drug trafficking ring busts are not uncommon.[2]

You must look for legal assistance as soon as possible if you are suspected or there are charges brought against you resulting from involvement in a drug trafficking ring.

These charges are serious – and can result in harsh penalties and sentencing – this is why it is very important to find a lawyer who is experienced in handling federal drug crime cases. There are attorneys who are knowledgeable about the crimes you may be charged with, can explain the charges, and advise you how to best proceed.

The Federal Statutes

The federal laws for involvement in a drug trafficking ring are contained in the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act, specifically in Title 21 the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). Drug trafficking is defined as the crime of unlawful distribution or possession with intent to distribute, create, import/export a controlled substance.[3] This includes prescription drugs.

Involvement in a drug trafficking in a ring would most likely result in additional charges, supply or hold with the intent to distribute would likely constitute the underlying drug offense.

  • 21 U.S.C. Section 846,[4] defines the crime of engaging in a drug conspiracy, which involves – any person – who attempts or conspires to commit any offense (create, distribute, dispense, and/or possess with intent to manufacture, distribute or dispense a controlled substance[5]) are subject to the same penalties as those prescribed for that offense.[6]
  • 21 U.S.C. Section 848,[7] defines the crime of continuing criminal enterprise (“CCE”) (“Kingpin”), which involves – any person engaged in a supervisory or managerial role – in the drug trafficking ring.
    • Also, 18 U.S.C. Section 924(c),[8] provides for additional criminal penalties for a person who carries a firearm during drug trafficking crime.

Government’s Burden of Proof

In a federal drug trafficking ring prosecution, in order to show the existence of a drug conspiracy, the government must prove:

  • The extent of an accord between two or more people to violate the narcotics laws;
  • The defendant’s knowledge of the agreement [9]
  • The defendant’s voluntary participation in the agreement.[10]

In order to show the extent of a “CCE,” the government must prove: a continuing series of violations, undertaken in concert with at least five other people with respect to whom the defendant occupied a position of arranger, supervisor, or manager. The evidence must also show that the defendant obtained substantial income or resources from criminal actions. [11]

Investigation and Detection of Drug Trafficking Rings

In most federal drug trafficking ring cases, defendants are arrested after a very lengthy, thorough investigation involving the association of federal, state, and local law enforcement, usually led by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). The investigation will often culminate in a large scale raid, which results in the indictment of multiple defendants.[12]


In most investigations by law enforcement agencies, confidential informants play a crucial role. They provide agents with the information that a person is involved in the trafficking of drugs. Then, by general observation and/or through the information obtained from trustworthy informants, agents are, in many cases, able to secure search and/or arrest warrants.

Electronic Surveillance

In most federal drug cases the court will authorize the government to use electronic surveillance (cameras, microphones, tape recorders, or wiretaps) in connection with the investigation. In such a case, the government must submit an application to the court requesting authorization.

The government’s application must provide “a full and complete statement as to whether or not other investigative actions have been tried and failed or why they appear to be unlikely to succeed if tried or to be too dangerous.”[13]

The government does not need to “exhaust all other investigative procedures before resorting to electronic surveillance,”[14] but they have to “show that other [normal investigative] techniques [were] impractical underneath the circumstances and that it would [have been] irrational to require pursuit of those avenues of investigation.”[15]


The government’s wiretap application was found valid where it explained clearly and specifically why the wiretaps were needed, which included:

  • One of the target locations could not be observed through traditional surveillance techniques because there were few houses in the area, allowing outsiders to be easily detected.
  • The drug trafficking ring was secretive, and therefore a newcomer (whether a confidential informant or undercover officer) would be unlikely to be entrusted with information that would forward the investigation.
  • Since the drug trafficking ring relied on cellular telephones, investigators could not deploy the traditional technique of using telephone records to locate a physical address that should be subjected to surveillance. [16]

What Happens if You Are Suspected?

If law enforcement agents have reasonable suspicion that you are involved in a drug trafficking ring, you may be subjected to an investigatory stop and/or questioned by law enforcement agents.

This could occur in the form of a traffic stop[17] or in an area where agents may have witnessed the drug trafficking activity.[18]

4th Amendment Rights

If you are stopped, it is important that you assert your 4th Amendment right, and if you are asked – do not consent to a search of your person or property.

Miranda Rights

If questioned by law enforcement agents or investigators, you should invoke your Miranda rights – a statement to remain silent and request the presence of an attorney while refusing to answer any implicating questions.

It is important that you immediately seek the assistance of a qualified attorney who can explain any potential charges and advocate on your behalf.    

What Happens if You Are Arrested?

If you are arrested, one of the first tasks of your defense attorney will be to argue to obtain your release. Because drug trafficking charges incur harsh penalties, bail set by the court is likely to be a substantial amount. However, your attorney may argue for a lower amount to be set if you have little or no prior criminal record or on the basis of other factors.     

Pre-trial Proceedings

Accusatory pleading

The prosecution must frame the charges against you in a way that details every statutory element of the crime, as described above, and your defense attorney should examine the accusatory pleading with this in mind. The indictment or information plead should mirror the wording of the federal drug statutes.

It should detail the date, place, describe the defendant, and include relevant supporting facts. For a drug conspiracy crime, the specifics of the conspiracy must also be stated, and the overt act in furtherance of the conspiracy should be listed.

Negotiating a Plea

Prosecutors often offer drug offenders a plea agreement that could reduce your potential sentence, sometimes substantially. To secure a plea, prosecutors may offer to lessen your initial charges, to reduce your charges to ones that do not carry mandatory sentences or to specify sentencing factors that would lower the sentencing range under the federal sentencing guidelines.

Further, prosecutors may also agree to file a motion with the court to allow the judge to sentence below the mandatory sentences – if you agree to provide substantial assistance to the government’s efforts to prosecute others involved in the drug ring.[19]

Motion to Suppress Evidence

Prior to trial, your defense attorney should make a preliminary motion to suppress evidence against you, seized through use of a search warrant, during an investigatory stop, or at the time of an arrest.

As law enforcement agents seek to catch suspects with drugs in their possession, and because, when proven, possession constitutes a major piece of the government’s case, preventing the introduction of such evidence is important to a successful defense. This includes challenging evidence obtained through informants, electronic surveillance, and any inculpatory statements.

Federal Criminal Trial

If the case does move forward to trial, the government has the burden of proving the charges beyond a reasonable doubt. In all federal cases, the defendant is required to have a jury trial unless the government consents to trial by the court.[21]

The trial is a process where the facts of a case are presented to the judge or jury, and they will decide if you are guilty or not guilty of the charges against you. During the trial, the prosecutor will call witnesses and offer evidence to try to prove that the defendant committed the crime(s).

It is very important that the defendant is represented by an attorney, who can also tell your side of the story by impeaching the prosecution’s witnesses testimony and by providing their own evidence.

If the trial is by jury, the judge will act as the impartial person in charge of the trial and will decide what evidence can be shown to the jury

Jury Selection

At trial, one of the first things a prosecutor and defense attorney must do is select jurors for the case. Both lawyers are allowed to ask questions about their potential biases and may excuse jurors from service. Each side is allowed to excuse certain potential jurors without providing a reason by using a limited number of “peremptory challenges.”

Opening Statements

Opening statements allow the prosecutor and the defense attorney to tell their version of the events to the jury briefly. These statements usually are short like an outline. The prosecutor makes an opening statement first because the Government has the burden of proving that the defendant committed the crime.

Government’s Case

Following opening statements, the prosecutor begins the direct examination of his first witness. During direct examination, the prosecutor can introduce evidence such as drugs or guns seized during a lawful search.

Your defense attorney has the opportunity to cross-examine or ask questions to the same witness. The purpose of cross-examination is to create doubt as to the credibility of the witness.

Defense Case

After the Government rests, the defense has the opportunity to call witnesses and present evidence to the jury. The defense also has the option of not having the defendant testify. There is no burden upon the defendant to prove that he is innocent. The fact that a defendant may choose not to testify may not be considered by the jury as proof that the defendant committed the crime.

The decision to put on a defense is solely up to you and the defense attorney.

Importance of Defense to Drug Trafficking Ring Charges

The defenses available if you are facing charges for involvement in a drug trafficking ring will depend on the various charges brought against you and on the facts of your particular case. A qualified attorney can discuss your options and defense strategy based on your individual circumstances.

Examples of Defenses

Some available defenses might include:

  • An alibi
  • Withdrawal from the conspiracy[22]
  • Entrapment[23]
  • Duress[24]
  • Expiration of the statute of limitations
  • A former jeopardy
  • Res judicata
  • An acquittal of a co-conspirator
  • An exemption of defendant or a coconspirator from prosecution
  • Diminished responsibility

You may also be able to rely on a general denial, forcing the government to meet its burden of proving guilt – because an innocent association is not sufficient on its own to support a conviction for drug conspiracy.

Closing Arguments

After the defense rests, the prosecutor and defense attorney prepare for closing arguments. Closing arguments are the final chance for the prosecutor and the defense attorney to persuade the jury. These arguments allow both attorneys to recap the testimony and evidence, and ask the jury to decide on a verdict of guilty or not guilty.

Jury Instructions and Verdict

After the closing arguments, the judge “charges the jury,” or tells them of the right law and of what they should do to reach a verdict. Once the jury reaches an agreement on a verdict, they notify the judge, the lawyers, and the defendant in open court.


If you are convicted of a federal drug crime, whether by plea or after trial, the judge will foist a sentence based on statutorily mandated sentences and informed by the sentencing guidelines.

If you are convicted of an offense carrying a mandatory minimum sentence, the judge cannot sentence underneath that minimum unless the defendant either qualifies for an exception under the so-called safety valve, or the government files a motion to abandon the minimum because the accused has provided a lot of assistance to the government.

Recent Drug Trafficking Ring Cases

U.S. v. Kennedy, 2018 WL 3559212 (6th Cir. 2018).

Kennedy trafficked oxycodone in Kentucky, paying others to obtain prescriptions for the narcotic from doctors and to get the prescriptions filled at pharmacies. He pleaded guilty to conspiring to distribute the drug from 2011 to March 2013 in violation of 21 U.S.C. Sections 841(a)(1), 846. A month later, from April 2013 through June 2015, Kennedy ran a second opioid-trafficking ring.

This ring was bigger and required more co-conspirators, more pain clinics, and more states. Two of Kennedy’s claims of appeal related to the Constitution’s Double Jeopardy Clause, which protects “against a second prosecution for the same offense after conviction or acquittal, and against multiple punishments for the same offense.”[25]

The Court, agreeing with the lower district court, held that given the totality of the circumstance theses were separate drug conspiracies.

U.S. v. Jennings, 2018 WL 3546534 (2d Cir. 2018).

Jennings was convicted, of multiple charges related to his operation of a large-scale drug ring. He was sentenced to three life terms and three twenty-year terms of imprisonment based on the version of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines in operation at the time of his original sentencing.

Several years later, the Court determined that Jennings was eligible for a sentence reduction pursuant to 18 U.S.C. Section 3582(c)(2). On June 13, 2017, the district court held a hearing to decide whether to exercise its discretion to grant a sentence reduction.

After calculating Jennings’s revised Guidelines range as 360 months to life, the district court reduced Jennings’s sentence to a 420-month term of imprisonment and entered an amended judgment on June 16, 2017.

Jennings appealed this amended judgment, claiming that the district court should have granted a greater reduction in his sentence by imposing a 360-month term of imprisonment, claiming that Court’s denial was based upon factual and legal errors regarding the drug quantity. The Circuit Court disagreed and affirmed the District Court’s ruling.

U.S. v. Kline, 2018 WL 1278315 (D. Minn 2018).

Kline argued that the warrant to search his apartment lacked probable cause because the information in the search warrant affidavit was “stale.” He also argued that the statements he made to Officer Lepinski during the execution of the search warrant should be suppressed because he was in custody and he did not explicitly waive his Miranda rights.

The Court denied Kline’s motion to suppress the evidence because the nature of that information did not make the warrant facially deficient or render “official belief” in the existence of probable cause “entirely unreasonable.”

The Eighth Circuit has applied the good faith exception to warrants based on much older information. Further,  the officer read Kline his rights, and he responded “yeah” when the officer asked him “do you understand these?,” the defendant then answered the Officer questions, and there is no evidence that he was pressured or coerced.

Proactive Advice

If you are suspected or have been arrested for a federal drug crime, you should obtain legal representation immediately; do not speak to anyone else without first consulting an attorney experienced in handling federal drug crimes.

Call Us Today!

You should start contacting lawyers to figure out who is the best to represent you and your case as soon as possible. The attorney you decide to retain will help you with everything pre-trial, and at trial to make sure you are in the best situation possible given the evidence and case being brought against you.

It is important to have an attorney experienced in handling federal drug crime because they will develop the strongest defense for you, save you precious time, and mitigate risks by taking immediate action and using all available methods to get the best possible outcome for you.