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Firearms and Drug Trafficking Charges: Penalties Under Federal Law

Drug arrests can result in either state or federal charges being brought against an individual. We have seen a variety of situations when an individual is arrested — sometimes an individual is initially charged at the state level and the federal government later picks up the case. We have also seen instances where the case starts in federal court. When in federal court, an individual’s charges and potential sentences are governed by federal statutes, and these federal statutes can vary widely from similar state statutes. In federal court, if you make a plea deal or if you are convicted at trial, you will be sentenced according to: (1) the particular statute or law allegedly broken and its enumerated “penalties” or punishment; (2) the United States Sentencing Guidelines, and (3) any “mandatory minimum” penalty requirements within specific statutes.

Drug Trafficking and Firearms

A criminal defendant faces a more significant sentence when an individual faces drug trafficking charges and the allegation that the person had a firearm at the time of the drug trafficking crime. Congress has legislated a mandatory minimum sentence for both the drug trafficking crime and the firearm charge, significant increasing a defendant’s worst-case exposure if found guilty.

Drug Trafficking Charges

If convicted of a drug trafficking (or in the event of a guilty plea), a criminal defendant must face the mandatory minimum sentencing spelled out in the Controlled Substances Act. The mandatory minimum sentence depends on the type and quantity of the controlled substance(s), as well as a defendant’s criminal history. The mandatory minimum could be as low as five (5) years but, in some circumstances, a defendant may very well face life in prison.

Firearms Charges

After the mandatory minimum sentencing for the underlying drug trafficking crime, a criminal defendant may also face a mandatory minimum sentence for the alleged firearm charges. There are two federal firearms statues that provide for a mandatory minimum sentence:

  1. Possession/Use of a Firearm in Furtherance of a Drug Trafficking or Crime of Violence (18 U.S.C. § 924(c); and
  2. The Armed Career Criminal Act (18 U.S.C. § 924(e).

Possession/Use of Firearm in Furtherance of a Drug Trafficking Crime — 18 U.S.C. § 924 (c)

Federal law makes it unlawful to use or carry a firearm during and in relation to any crime of violence or drug trafficking crime. The law provides for an enhanced punishment for any individual who “uses or carries a firearm, or who, in furtherance of any such crime, possesses a firearm.” 18 U.S.C. § 924(c). The statute requires a punishment “in addition to the punishment provided for [the underlying] crime of violence or drug trafficking crime.” 18 U.S.C. § 924(c). This means that any penalty under the statute will run consecutively to “any other term of imprisonment imposed on the person, including any term of imprisonment for the crime of violence or drug trafficking crime during which the firearm was used, carried, or possessed.” 18 U.S.C. § 924 (c)(1)(D). A judge has absolutely no discretion to order the gun-related sentence to run concurrently, or to place a defendant on probation upon a conviction.

The mandatory minimum sentence for a single conviction is at five years. This mandatory minimum can be much longer depending on how the gun was used (i.e. 7 years if the gun was brandished, 10 years if the gun was discharged), and the type of gun (i.e. short barreled rifle is 7 years). Also, a second or subsequent conviction under 18 U.S.C. § 924 (c) can result in a mandatory minimum sentence of 25 years.

Armed Career Criminal Act — 18 U.S.C. § 924 (e)

Another firearm-related statute that imposes a mandatory minimum sentence is the Armed Career Criminal Act (“ACCA”) found at 18 U.S.C. § 924 (e). The ACCA essentially combines federal drug trafficking crimes with the firearm statutes found in 18 U.S.C. § 924 (g). This firearm statute prohibits certain individuals (i.e. convicted felons, fugitives from the law, and aliens that are illegal present in the United States) from possessing, shipping/transporting, and/or receiving firearms. The ACCA has a mandatory minimum sentence of fifteen (15) years for anyone who has three or more convictions that qualify as a “serious drug offense” or is convicted of violating 18 U.S.C. § 924 (g).

How an Attorney Can Help

Clearly, a defendant faces the potential for significant jail time when faced with both drug trafficking crimes and firearms charges. An experienced attorney will be able to help you navigate the potential harsh penalties by establishing that a firearm was not actually possessed or used “in furtherance” of any underlying drug trafficking crime, thereby significantly reducing your potential term of imprisonment. Thus, it is important to have an experienced attorney in your corner when facing federal charges involving both drug trafficking and firearms.

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