Many drug charges can be brought in both federal courts and Tennessee state courts. However, there are major differences between federal crimes and state crimes. The rules of procedure and evidence are different. The sentencing guidelines and procedures are different. The makeup of the jury that hears your case is normally different. Typically, the consequences for federal crimes are more severe than for state crimes.
As a general rule, if a drug charge is a felony in Tennessee, it is also a felony in federal jurisdictions. These charges can include:
- Possession with intent to distribute
- Possession for the purpose of selling
- Attempt and conspiracy (to sell, distribute, etc.)
- Obtaining drugs by fraudulent means or misrepresentation
- Continuing criminal enterprise (the “Drug Kingpin” statute)
- Maintaining a drug-involved premises (the “Crack House” statute)
- Traveling or using the mail with intent to distribute
You can also face federal charges for driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol if the conduct occurs in federal jurisdiction, such as a National Park and may face felony charges if it is a repeat offense.
One thing to note is that federal drug charges are enhanceable. This means that if you have prior convictions on your record, you may face a greatly increased mandatory minimum sentence.
What determines whether you face federal charges?
Some of the factors that may result in federal drug charges are the following:
The offense. Trafficking in drugs can almost always qualify as a federal crime because the offense involves drugs that can be placed into interstate commerce. A large percentage of federal drug crimes are trafficking offenses. Drug trafficking offenses charged in federal court are generally based upon large conspiracies in which the top of the distribution chain comes from a larger city.
A federal connection. Even if the drug offense takes place entirely in Tennessee, you may face felony charges if:
- The drug offense occurred on federal property (such as a national park or a US Army base) in Tennessee.
- A federal informant told law enforcement about the drug crime. Informants may be willing to testify against you in return for a lesser sentence for their own drug offenses.
- You were arrested by a federal agency such as the Federal Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) or the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). If the investigation or offense involves a local sheriff’s office and local law enforcement, then the odds of state drug charges being filed increase.
- Sting operations usually involve federal informants and federal officers. Federal charges may be filed if your local case is part of a bigger federal case. Often federal DEA officers work with Tennessee law enforcement. Prosecutors may choose to file felony charges because local law enforcement doesn’t have the resources to complete the investigation or because the prosecutors want to obtain a lengthier prison sentence.
The severity of the drug crime. Possession of low amounts of controlled substances will usually result in state drug charges. If you were involved in the manufacture, distribution, or sale of drugs, however, it increases the risk of being charged with a federal drug crime. The larger amounts of money involved, the more likely felony drug charges will be filed.
What are the key differences between federal and state drug charges?
Generally, first-time offenders receive lighter sentences for state drug charges than for federal drug charges. Federal judges are required to sentence convicted defendants (or defendants who plead guilty) by using federal sentencing guidelines. State judges use the state guidelines. In both federal and state courts, defendants who are convicted have certain (but different) appellate rights.
The federal guidelines often have mandatory sentences for serious drug offenses. Probation is generally not an available option in federal charges, but probation is typically used more in state courts. As a general rule, your sentence for the same or a comparable drug crime will be longer for federal charges than for state charges. Parole has been abolished in the federal system, and a convicted felon will be serving at least 85% of the time ordered. The rules of criminal procedure and the rules of evidence are different for federal cases and state cases. Our Sevierville criminal defense lawyers understand both sets (federal and state) of procedural and evidentiary rules.
Can I be charged with both a federal and state drug crime?
Yes. In the recent Supreme Court case Gamble v. United States, the High Court affirmed that prosecution in both state and federal court for the same offense does not constitute double jeopardy. Several counties in East Tennessee will pursue a state drug charge, even after the federal government has obtained a hefty sentence in the same crime. Your criminal defense attorney can explain more about this, as every case is unique.
As a practical matter, the evidence is often the same (or nearly the same) for both a federal and a state court drug charge. This means if the government did not have a strong case in state court, it likely will not have a strong case in federal court. If you are acquitted in state court or the charges are dismissed, the odds are the same result will happen in federal court. Prosecutors normally don’t file charges (exceptions do occur) if they are fairly sure they will not be able to prove their case.
At Delius & McKenzie, PLLC, our Sevierville criminal defense lawyers assert every legal, factual, and practical argument possible on your behalf. We have a strong record of obtaining dismissals of drug charges, suppressing illegal drug evidence, and obtaining acquittals in court. We are also skilled at the art of plea bargain negotiations. Our lawyers fight to have drug cases charged in state courts, where the court process and sentencing process are more favorable, than in federal court. For defendants who qualify, we work to have drug cases transferred to drug courts where the focus is on treatment and not on incarceration.
If you’ve been charged with a federal or state drug crime, call (865) 428-8780 or fill out our contact form to make an appointment. We represent defendants in every phase of a criminal case. Our defense lawyers represent defendants in Sevierville, Seymour, Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and the surrounding areas.
Attorney Bryan E. Delius was born and raised in Sevier County, TN. He founded Delius & McKenzie more than 20 years ago, after receiving his JD from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. He is admitted in Tennessee and in several federal court systems. Learn more about Bryan E. Delius.