Drug smuggling is sneaking illicit or controlled substances into a country or state unlawfully or without permission. The Controlled Substances Act and the Controlled Substances Import/Export Act define the federal government's laws regarding drugs, both illegal and prescription, including drug smuggling and other related offenses.
Drug smuggling is often a federal offense because the U.S. government can prosecute crimes that cross state or international boundaries. Many illegal drugs, such as cocaine and heroin, come from other countries, and even if you smuggle drugs across state lines, you can still face federal charges.
The crime also falls under federal jurisdiction if it occurred on federal property, such as a federal prison, or if it involved or affected interstate commerce. You can also face federal drug smuggling charges if the drug was an opioid or prescription medication or if you were part of an illegal drug operation.
No matter the reason, you are in a serious legal predicament if you have been arrested for federal drug smuggling. The penalties you can receive if convicted will depend on how much of the drugs you were smuggling, but even a first offense can carry a five-year minimum prison sentence and substantial fines.
To protect your rights and future, you should consult with an experienced federal criminal defense attorney as soon as possible who can evaluate your case, advise you of your best options, and help you develop an effective defense.
Drug Smuggling vs. Drug Trafficking
Some people use drug smuggling and drug trafficking interchangeably, but the U.S. Code deals with them separately, and there are important differences between them.
Although both crimes involve moving drugs from one location to another, drug trafficking involves manufacturing, dispensing, or distributing a controlled substance for someone else's use, usually with the intention of selling the drugs for profit.
If you have a small amount of drugs in your possession that is for your personal use, you will most likely be charged with possession. However, the charge will be based on the amount you have, and if you are caught with a substantial amount, you may have a hard time claiming they were for your own use.
By contrast, drug smuggling is transporting controlled substances across international or state lines no matter how much you have or whether you plan to distribute or sell them. For instance, you can be arrested for drug smuggling even if you only had enough drugs on you for your own use but transported them across state lines. Additionally, it's against the law to be in possession of a controlled substance on a vessel or aircraft arriving in or departing from the United States.
Types of Controlled Substances and Their Schedules
The government classifies controlled substances into the following five schedules, depending on their potential for abuse and dependence:
- Schedule I – Heroin, marijuana, LSD, peyote, and ecstasy
- Schedule II – Cocaine, methamphetamine, Vicodin, Adderall, and methadone
- Schedule III – Anabolic steroids, testosterone, ketamine, and Tylenol with codeine
- Schedule IV – Valium, Xanax, Ambien, Tramadol
- Schedule V – Lyrica, Lomotil, Robitussin AC
The government also includes substances such as GHB (the “date rape drug”) and flunitrazepam (roofies). Additionally, the law prohibits importing or exporting certain chemicals, mixtures, compounds used to make drugs, and even certain plant materials, like cocoa leaves, that could be converted to cocaine.
Penalties for Federal Drug Smuggling
The penalties for drug smuggling fall under the sentencing guidelines for “dispensing or distributing” a controlled substance, and they will depend on the following:
- What kind of controlled substance was it
- How much of it you had in your possession
For a first conviction, you can receive a minimum prison sentence of five years and up to 40 years maximum. Furthermore, those convicted of drug smuggling are not eligible for probation, so you could receive a five to 10-year prison sentence with no parole your first time.
Penalties double for second offenses, and you can receive harsh penalties if anyone was injured or killed during the crime. In cases of injury or death, the minimum prison sentence jumps to 20 years, and you could receive a life sentence. You may also receive fines of up to $5 million for a first conviction or up to $25 million if you are “not an individual.” (A drug cartel, for instance.)
Defenses for Federal Drug Smuggling
Considering the potential impact on your life and future, you want to devise the strongest possible defense to increase your chances of getting a favorable outcome. You should immediately retain an experienced federal defense attorney to help you determine your best courses of action.
The government will have to prove the following to prosecute you for drug smuggling:
- You played a part in bringing a controlled substance into the U.S. (or across state lines).
- You knew you were smuggling a controlled substance into the U.S.
- You knew that the controlled substance was coming into the U.S.
Your defense options will depend on the facts and circumstances of your case, but you may be able to show:
- You didn't know you had the drugs on you.
- You did know they were illegal or controlled.
- You didn't know the drugs were coming into the U.S., such as if you ordered something from overseas and the drugs were in the package without your knowledge.
- You acted under duress, meaning someone forced you to do it.
Other defense options may lie in whether authorities seized the drugs from an illegal search or seizure or coerced you into committing the offense through entrapment. You may also rely on mistaken identity if you can show you were not the person prosecutors claim committed the crime.
Get Help from An Experienced Federal Defense Attorney
Federal drug smuggling laws are broad and complex, and you need a full and objective evaluation from an experienced federal criminal defense attorney.
Attorney Joseph D. Lento has defended many New Jersey district court clients on drug smuggling charges and other federal offenses. Call the Lento Law Firm at 888-535-3686 or fill out our contact form to request a confidential consultation.